When Socialism was Popular in the United States


For the first time in near­ly a cen­tu­ry, echoes of social­ism are once again rever­ber­at­ing in the Unit­ed States. Despite waves of “red scares,” which reduced social­ism to a polit­i­cal dis­ease, cur­rent opin­ion polling sug­gests that sub­stan­tial num­bers of U.S. cit­i­zens, espe­cial­ly among younger cohorts, now con­sid­er social­ism prefer­able to cap­i­tal­ism. What social­ism means in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, how­ev­er, appears inchoate – espe­cial­ly when its new Amer­i­can avatar, Bernie Sanders, most often prais­es Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and neglects the hey­day of social­ism in the Unit­ed States from 1910 to 1918.

It’s a shame that Sanders, who once made a doc­u­men­tary on Eugene V. Debs, has not said much about ear­li­er Amer­i­can social­ist move­ments dur­ing his cam­paign – not only because such neglect buries a vibrant his­to­ry of strug­gle, but because it’s pre­cise­ly the expe­ri­ences of the move­ments of the past that may help us nav­i­gate some of the major chal­lenges in build­ing an orga­nized social­ist move­ment today. Like us, ear­li­er social­ists strug­gled to unite a frag­ment­ed and het­ero­ge­neous work­ing class, fuse extra-par­lia­men­tary strug­gle with elec­toral pol­i­tics, counter the machi­na­tions of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can Par­ties, and above all, make social­ism a real part of people’s dai­ly lives. And for a time, they suc­ceed­ed. Let us there­fore look back to this peri­od, when social­ism appeared as an actu­al polit­i­cal alter­na­tive in the Unit­ed States, to see what it meant to its fol­low­ers, how its pro­po­nents prac­ticed pol­i­tics, what social­ists did when they obtained polit­i­cal pow­er, and, most impor­tant­ly, how they over­came some of the dilem­mas they faced while crash­ing against oth­ers.

The Rising Tide of Socialism

Social­ism plant­ed its roots in the Unit­ed States in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, just as it did in Europe, but it remained for the most part a sec­tar­i­an move­ment of pre­dom­i­nant­ly Ger­man immi­grants who con­duct­ed par­ty busi­ness, news­pa­pers, jour­nals, and con­fer­ences in their native lan­guage. At the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, social­ism in the Unit­ed States broad­ened its appeal, and more of its adher­ents spoke and wrote in Eng­lish. It attract­ed more mil­i­tant trade union­ists, for­mer Pop­ulists, social gospel­ers, aca­d­e­mics and intel­lec­tu­als, and a leader who spoke the lan­guage of reform and even rev­o­lu­tion in the native ver­nac­u­lar. That leader, Eugene Vic­tor Debs, had trav­eled a cir­cuitous route to social­ism by way of Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty pol­i­tics, tra­di­tion­al craft union­ism, rad­i­cal indus­tri­al union­ism, Pop­ulism, and utopi­an or com­mu­ni­tar­i­an social­ism; he filled his ora­to­ry more with Bib­li­cal cita­tions and phras­es than Marx­ist ter­mi­nol­o­gy, more with allu­sions to the promis­es expressed in the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence than to the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo or Das Kap­i­tal, and he held his audi­ences spell­bound whether in small towns, rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, or even metrop­o­lis­es like New York City with its diverse audi­ence for many of whom Eng­lish was a sec­ond lan­guage.1

The par­ty that Debs spoke for and for which he cam­paigned for the pres­i­den­cy four times –  in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920 – formed at a nation­al con­ven­tion in 1901.2 The con­ven­tion brought togeth­er a num­ber of dis­parate groups includ­ing Jew­ish and oth­er urban immi­grants who had rebelled against Daniel DeLeon’s con­trol of the Social­ist Labor Par­ty; Vic­tor Berger’s Aus­tro-Ger­man Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic orga­ni­za­tion based in Mil­wau­kee trade union­ists; and what might be deemed the Debs’ fol­low­ing: rem­nants from his Amer­i­can Rail­way Union, agrar­i­an and work­er ex-Pop­ulists, Chris­t­ian Social­ists, and indi­vid­u­als trans­fixed by Deb­sian rhetoric. Con­ven­tion del­e­gates named their new orga­ni­za­tion the Social­ist Par­ty of Amer­i­ca (SPA), and cre­at­ed a coali­tion as diverse as those con­struct­ed by the Repub­li­can and Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties.

Dur­ing its first decade the SPA expe­ri­enced steady but not spec­tac­u­lar growth. Aside from the firm roots it plant­ed in Mil­wau­kee where the orga­ni­za­tion led by Vic­tor Berg­er threat­ened the polit­i­cal pow­er exer­cised by Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans in the city and coun­ty, the SPA posed lit­tle threat to the estab­lished par­ties. But it did have voice as reflect­ed in its wide­ly read news­pa­pers and jour­nals in numer­ous lan­guages and its soap­box ora­tors who cap­tured the atten­tion of crowds on city street cor­ners and at rur­al camp meet­ings. The par­ty pub­lished dai­ly news­pa­pers, such as Milwaukee’s Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Her­ald and New York’s Call as good or bet­ter than the oth­er city dailies, and New York’s Yid­dish-lan­guage Vor­waerts (“For­ward”) was the nation’s most wide­ly read for­eign-lan­guage news­pa­per. The SPA also pub­lished two pop­u­lar mass cir­cu­la­tion peri­od­i­cals (The Appeal to Rea­son, out of Girard, Kansas and the Nation­al Rip-Saw out of St. Louis), two the­o­ret­i­cal and learned jour­nals with glob­al cov­er­age (Inter­na­tion­al Social­ist Review and The New Review), along with jour­nals issued by such unions as the Inter­na­tion­al Ladies’ Gar­ment Work­ers, the Amal­ga­mat­ed Cloth­ing Work­ers (post-1914), the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers, the Unit­ed Brew­ery Work­ers, the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Machin­ists, and the West­ern Fed­er­a­tion of Min­ers, which pro­mot­ed social­ist prin­ci­ples and con­cepts. Small­er cir­cu­la­tion papers and jour­nals appealed to near­ly every for­eign lan­guage read­er­ship in the nation. Thus, before the SPA had much elec­toral suc­cess it devel­oped a loud and effec­tive polit­i­cal voice – and this effec­tive­ness was ful­ly tied to mul­ti­ple modes of address.

Begin­ning in about 1910, the eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal uni­vers­es appeared to shat­ter, offer­ing wider oppor­tu­ni­ties for social­ists. Between 1909 and 1913, mass and some­times vio­lent strikes swept across the West­ern world, the Unit­ed States includ­ed. In New York, Philadel­phia, Bal­ti­more, and Chica­go, among oth­er cen­ters of the ready-made cloth­ing indus­try, nee­dle trades work­ers walked off the job to win high­er wages, improved con­di­tions, and union recog­ni­tion. Their vic­to­ries led to rapid growth in mem­ber­ship among unions that tutored their ranks in social­ist doc­trine, encour­aged their immi­grant mem­bers to become cit­i­zens, and ush­ered them to polling places to vote for SPA can­di­dates. In cities with ris­ing mem­ber­ship in gar­ment indus­try unions, most notably the Ladies’ Gar­ment Work­ers, the Amal­ga­mat­ed Cloth­ing Work­ers, the Cap and Hat Mak­ers, and the Fur Work­ers, social­ist votes increased. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, the most rad­i­cal labor orga­ni­za­tion ever to arise in the Unit­ed States, the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World (IWW), emerged from rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty to lead two gen­er­al strikes in the tex­tile indus­try: the 1912 Lawrence, Mass­a­chu­setts “bread and ros­es” con­flict and the 1913 Pater­son, New Jer­sey silk strike that linked IWW rad­i­cals, New York bohemi­ans and intel­lec­tu­als (the famous Green­wich Vil­lage avant-garde and their bril­liant month­ly, The Mass­es), SPA mem­bers, and immi­grant New Jer­sey silk work­ers in a com­mon cause. The explo­sion of labor con­flict, com­bined with increas­ing votes for SPA can­di­dates, led to arti­cles and essays in aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals, small cir­cu­la­tion mag­a­zines, and mass-mar­ket dailies herald­ing “the ris­ing tide of social­ism” or “the ris­ing tide of syn­di­cal­ism.”

What had hap­pened in the Unit­ed States was part of a glob­al labor upris­ing that enveloped West­ern and North­ern Europe, where equal­ly mas­sive strikes par­a­lyzed major eco­nom­ic sec­tors. Ger­many, France, and Britain required mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion to quell class con­flict. Spain and Italy pro­duced syn­di­cal­ist and anar­cho-syn­di­cal­ist coun­ter­parts to the U.S. IWW, and migrant work­ers from both nations, espe­cial­ly Italy, trav­eled around migra­to­ry cir­cuits that often took them to the Unit­ed States. In Ger­many espe­cial­ly but also in the Ger­man-lan­guage dom­i­nant Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire, France, Italy, and south­ern Europe social­ists began to make sub­stan­tial elec­toral inroads. Even in Britain a Labour Par­ty emerged inde­pen­dent­ly of the Lib­er­al Par­ty and its Lib-Lab coali­tion. Sud­den­ly a social­ist tidal wave seemed to sweep across the indus­tri­al world, the Unit­ed States includ­ed. In the era of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tion­al (1881-1919), social­ists every­where thought that they were rid­ing history’s express train on an unim­ped­ed track whose des­ti­na­tion was a coop­er­a­tive com­mon­wealth among equal cit­i­zens.

The Bases of Socialist Success

Nation­al­ly, the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 1912 estab­lished the pres­ence of the SPA as an elec­toral force. Debs, in his fourth race for the pres­i­den­cy, drew almost a mil­lion votes or between 6 and 8 per­cent of the total. By 1914 the par­ty had elect­ed two mem­bers of Con­gress, Vic­tor Berg­er from Mil­wau­kee and Mey­er Lon­don from Man­hat­tan. By then the par­ty count­ed a mem­ber­ship of over 100,000 men and women who paid reg­u­lar dues and com­mit­ted them­selves to the party’s prin­ci­ples, unlike Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans who typ­i­cal­ly were only nom­i­nal par­ty mem­bers. The SPA con­tin­ued to print hun­dreds of news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines and to main­tain a sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal voice. At the local lev­el at var­i­ous times between 1910 and 1916 the SPA con­trolled munic­i­pal gov­ern­ments in Sch­enec­tady, New York; Read­ing, Penn­syl­va­nia; Mil­wau­kee, Wis­con­sin; Day­ton and Tole­do, Ohio; Gran­ite City, Illi­nois; Butte, Mon­tana; Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, and numer­ous oth­er cities. Social­ists remained a potent influ­ence in the labor move­ment. At least one-third of del­e­gates to the 1911 AFL con­ven­tion were social­ists by con­vic­tion or par­ty mem­ber­ship, and social­ists exert­ed a dom­i­nant influ­ence in four of the largest affil­i­ates of the AFL and two of the small­er ones. Out­side of the AFL, the mass mem­ber­ship Amal­ga­mat­ed Cloth­ing Work­ers of Amer­i­ca pro­mot­ed social­ism among its mem­bers and even mem­bers of the syn­di­cal­ist IWW, who expressed antipa­thy to con­ven­tion­al pol­i­tics, could be count­ed on to vote social­ist when and where they were eli­gi­ble to do so.3

Social­ism act­ed as part of the gen­er­al wave of reform sen­ti­ment sweep­ing the nation asso­ci­at­ed with the Pro­gres­sive era. Indeed one of the more notable pro­gres­sive reform­ers, Charles Sprague Smith, an influ­en­tial New York pro­gres­sive and founder of the pop­u­lar People’s Forum, wrote to SPA leader Mor­ris Hillquit that “what I feel about Social­ism is that it is a very impor­tant ele­ment in the whole Pro­gres­sive move­ment…”4 In the 1912 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, 75 per­cent of vot­ers chose change in one form or anoth­er. Only 25 per­cent opt­ed for the can­di­date of the sta­tus quo, William Howard Taft; the vast major­i­ty cast bal­lots for Debs, Woodrow Wil­son, the even­tu­al vic­tor, or Theodore Roo­sevelt, who ran as a pro­gres­sive out­side the Repub­li­can par­ty.

Equal­ly remark­able was the SPA’s attrac­tion for lead­ing intel­lec­tu­als, lit­er­ary celebri­ties, and artists. The mem­ber­ship list for Local One of the New York City SPA, which spread from Green­wich Vil­lage through Chelsea on the West Side, read like a who’s who of the city’s cul­tur­al elite. Among its mem­bers at one time or anoth­er were the nov­el­ist Theodore Dreis­er, writer and edi­tor Max East­man and his sis­ter, the lawyer, jour­nal­ist, and fem­i­nist Crys­tal East­man, the painters John and Anna Sloan, the jour­nal­ist Mary Heaton Vorse, the notable female reform­ers Flo­rence Kel­ley and Frances Perkins, the socialites William Eng­lish Walling, Robert Hunter, J. G. Phelps-Stokes, and the young Wal­ter Lipp­mann. Such African Amer­i­can rad­i­cals as W.E.B. Dubois, A. Philip Ran­dolph, and Hubert Har­ri­son found for a time a com­fort­able home in New York’s SPA. Else­where such promi­nent lit­er­ary fig­ures as Jack Lon­don, Upton Sin­clair, and Carl Sand­burg joined the par­ty.

Wher­ev­er the social­ists estab­lished munic­i­pal pow­er or influ­ence the par­ty con­struct­ed an alliance with local unions of skilled work­ers. Once in pow­er the social­ists deliv­ered clean, effi­cient gov­ern­ment ser­vices. In the case of Mil­wau­kee, this led to its rep­u­ta­tion as the nation’s health­i­est city. Unlike many of their Pro­gres­sive com­peti­tors the social­ists did not seek to dis­en­fran­chise or dis­em­pow­er poor­er cit­i­zens, and they brought paved, clean streets, munic­i­pal water and sew­er ser­vice, pub­lic health pro­vi­sions, pub­lic util­i­ties, and good schools to poor as well as wealthy cit­i­zens. Though more rad­i­cal social­ists may have crit­i­cized their more mod­er­ate com­rades as “gas and water social­ists,” the cit­i­zens who received gas, water, and oth­er such pub­lic ser­vices appre­ci­at­ed them deeply.5

The SPA built a con­stituen­cy that spread across length and breadth of the coun­try. Its largest state par­ty branch by pro­por­tion was in Okla­homa, with a some­what small­er branch in the neigh­bor­ing state of Kansas. In Huey Long’s Louisiana home parish, Winn, the par­ty proved a pow­er­ful pres­ence; and in Arkansas, east Texas, the Moun­tain States, and the Far West the SPA drew sup­port among ten­ant farm­ers, share­crop­pers, coal min­ers, hard-rock min­ers, and rail­road­ers.6

Par­ty lead­ers cul­ti­vat­ed their rela­tions with affil­i­ates of the AFL despite peri­od­i­cal con­dem­na­tions of social­ism by Gom­pers and his clos­est asso­ciates on the Federation’s exec­u­tive coun­cil. The gospel as laid down by par­ty leader and the­o­rist Mor­ris Hillquit, as he drew it from the writ­ings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, read as fol­lows:

I am firm­ly con­vinced that the suc­cess or fail­ure of our movement…will ulti­mate­ly depend on our abil­i­ty to win the sup­port of orga­nized labor. We can­not assume that the orga­nized workers…are con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly inac­ces­si­ble to the teach­ing of social­ism. If we do, we might as well give up all hope of ever win­ning pow­er or influ­ence in…political life…

Hillquit added that labor unions “are the best fields for pro­pa­gan­da in so far as they are orga­nized on the basis of class strug­gle. It makes them more acces­si­ble to the teach­ings of social­ism.“7 To which a young woman gar­ment work­er not­ed, “Isn’t it pos­si­ble to have more con­trol of such trade unions, and to make them not only trade unions but ide­al­is­tic unions and to make pro­pa­gan­da? Then we social­ists will have more votes…”8

The Socialist Mentality: Simple Truths and Hard Dilemmas

It is easy enough to know what social­ism meant for par­ty lead­ers (they expressed their beliefs often enough in speech and writ­ing) but it is much hard­er to deter­mine what social­ism meant for most SPA mem­bers and vot­ers. In sim­plest terms, social­ists prob­a­bly believed in pro­duc­tion for use not prof­it; sol­i­dar­i­ty in place of the indi­vid­u­al­is­tic Dar­win­ian strug­gle for advance­ment; humankind as the mak­er of soci­ety rather than imper­son­al nat­ur­al law as the mold­er of human­i­ty; and jus­tice rather than wealth as the foun­da­tion for society:in brief, a social order in which the ties that bind peo­ple togeth­er were stronger than those which sep­a­rate them, and in which actu­al mate­r­i­al equal­i­ty replaced for­mal, or false bour­geois, equal­i­ty. For many social­ist vot­ers, how­ev­er, the more quo­tid­i­an aspects of their pol­i­tics – job secu­ri­ty, bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, clean gov­ern­ment, and supe­ri­or pub­lic ser­vices, in oth­er words, “gas, water, and sew­er social­ism” – attract­ed their devo­tion. And it was a polit­i­cal move­ment that, again in the words of Hillquit, “…has changed its prac­ti­cal meth­ods some­what. It always does. It learns from expe­ri­ence. It is not any more con­ser­v­a­tive today than it was twen­ty years ago.”

Yet a series of sen­si­tive issues – immi­gra­tion, race, and fem­i­nism – cre­at­ed dilem­mas that SPA nev­er resolved sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly. An orga­ni­za­tion that drew sup­port among new­er immi­grants and their chil­dren, the SPA resist­ed most attempts to restrict immi­gra­tion that were aimed at emi­grants from the east and south of Europe. Social­ist doc­trine taught its adher­ents not to draw dis­tinc­tions among work­ers of the world who were unit­ed in the Sec­ond Inter­na­tion­al. Yet in the U.S. racial beliefs dom­i­nant among trade union­ists, and even among many social­ists, drew a firm line that sep­a­rat­ed Asian immi­grants from oth­ers, deny­ing them the right to emi­grate to the U.S. Some social­ists, like Vic­tor Berg­er, sup­port­ed Asian exclu­sion in explic­it­ly racist terms but oth­ers, like Hillquit, ratio­nal­ized such a pol­i­cy by main­tain­ing that if “Coolie” labor­ers stayed at home, they would inten­si­fy class con­flict and impel rev­o­lu­tion in their home­lands.9

Racist sen­ti­ments also lim­it­ed the SPA’s inroads among African Amer­i­cans who remained con­cen­trat­ed in the for­mer slave states where de jure seg­re­ga­tion ruled. Social­ist branch­es every­where in the South were “Jim Crowed” and the vast major­i­ty accept­ed only whites. The par­ty equiv­o­cat­ed on the woman ques­tion. Women found much more oppor­tu­ni­ty to serve in the SPA as speak­ers, writ­ers, and par­ty offi­cials than was the case in both of the major par­ties. And the SPA, unlike the Repub­li­can and Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties, uni­form­ly demand­ed woman’s suf­frage and cam­paigned for it. Still, all too many of the men who dom­i­nat­ed par­ty lead­er­ship and formed the bulk of the rank and file believed that women’s place remained in the home.10

Unable to resolve the inter­nal divi­sions aris­ing from immi­gra­tion, race, and gen­der, social­ists insist­ed that racism and misog­y­ny would be super­seded with cap­i­tal­ism and its class dis­tinc­tions, reliev­ing their pro­gram of any present respon­si­bil­i­ty. While this treat­ment of those dis­tinct oppres­sions leaves much to abhor, we should be care­ful about how we crit­i­cize them. Sit­u­at­ing racism and misog­y­ny, for instance, in the dynam­ics of cap­i­tal­ism has been a cor­ner­stone of the black rad­i­cal and Marx­ist Fem­i­nist tra­di­tions. The defi­cien­cy of SPA’s approach came not from a nar­row pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the work­ing class, but an improp­er the­o­riza­tion of how the class was struc­tured by those oth­er ele­ments of the social for­ma­tion. It was a fail­ure to impute strug­gles around immi­gra­tion, race, and gen­der with a social­ist con­tent, and pro­duce, beyond the frag­ments, a uni­fied pro­le­tari­at.

Socialists_in_Union_Square,_N.Y.C. (1)
Social­ists in Union Square, New York City on May 1, 1912

The debate that roiled Euro­pean social­ists before World War I – the intra-par­ty con­flict between adher­ents of evo­lu­tion­ary (reform) social­ism and advo­cates of rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ism (Bern­stein vs. Kaut­sky), or between tra­di­tion­al­ists and revi­sion­ists – had only the faintest echoes in in the Unit­ed States. The SPA espoused tra­di­tion­al Marx­ism in its the­o­ry and lan­guage, but in prac­tice it imple­ment­ed a revi­sion­ist pro­gram of piece­meal reforms and incre­men­tal elec­toral gains. The clash between rev­o­lu­tion­ary doc­trine and reformist prac­tice emerged clear­ly in 1912 and 1913 when the SPA divid­ed inter­nal­ly over the issue of con­fronta­tion and vio­lence. In 1913 the par­ty major­i­ty oust­ed the IWW’s William D. Hay­wood from the party’s nation­al exec­u­tive com­mit­tee because he advo­cat­ed direct action, sab­o­tage, and refused to reject vio­lent meth­ods. Haywood’s repu­di­a­tion by a par­ty major­i­ty proved that despite its rev­o­lu­tion­ary rhetoric, the SPA major­i­ty in prac­tice fol­lowed the revi­sion­ist pre­scrip­tion offered by Bern­stein, that is, the par­ty assumed that the coop­er­a­tive com­mon­wealth would be achieved by elec­toral action and not a mas­sive gen­er­al strike or rev­o­lu­tion­ary action.11

The great­est dilem­ma for U.S. social­ists remained how to con­vert the major­i­ty of trade union­ists and work­ers to their cause. Unlike con­ti­nen­tal Europe where social­ist par­ties and trade unions emerged togeth­er and where social­ists often birthed unions, in the Unit­ed States near­ly all the affil­i­ates of the AFL and the largest unaf­fil­i­at­ed unions were found­ed before the birth of the SPA. Unlike Europe, where the social­ist move­ment was instru­men­tal in win­ning fran­chise rights for work­ers, in the U.S. adult male work­ers obtained the right to vote pri­or to the emer­gence of social­ism and devel­oped loy­al­ties to one of the two major par­ties. Unions in Europe and the Unit­ed States, more­over, exist­ed to bar­gain with employ­ers and pro­tect work­ers’ rights on the job. How then might unions bar­gain reg­u­lar­ly with employ­ers and still remain faith­ful to a move­ment com­mit­ted to expro­pri­at­ing cap­i­tal­ists? In oth­er words, how could social­ist unions func­tion effec­tive­ly with­in an exist­ing cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem and still main­tain a Marx­ist, rev­o­lu­tion­ary posi­tion?

A host of oth­er fac­tors lim­it­ed social­ist pen­e­tra­tion among work­ers and the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. In the South and in places like Texas, Okla­homa, and Kansas the SPA drew its sup­port most­ly among U.S.-born and old­er-stock immi­grant groups. In major metrop­o­lis­es and small­er indus­tri­al cities, the par­ty appealed most com­mon­ly to work­ers of more recent immi­grant groups. Before World War I, how­ev­er, sub­stan­tial num­bers of south and east Euro­pean immi­grants remained sojourn­ers and not cit­i­zens, hence unable or unlike­ly to vote. As the case of New York City and, to a less­er extent, Mil­wau­kee revealed, eth­nic divi­sions cir­cum­scribed social­ist strength. Irish, Ital­ian, and Jew­ish Amer­i­cans dom­i­nat­ed New York City’s pop­u­la­tion. By the sec­ond decade of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the Irish had been ful­ly inte­grat­ed into the city’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal machines (a sim­i­lar dynam­ic played out in Mil­wau­kee). Ital­ians, many of whom were still not cit­i­zens, vot­ed in sparse num­bers. Only the east Euro­pean Jews, who became cit­i­zens rel­a­tive­ly rapid­ly, and who dom­i­nat­ed the gar­ment indus­try unions and pre­ferred to read Vor­waerts, could be relied on to vote for SPA can­di­dates. Con­gress­man Mey­er Lon­don rep­re­sent­ed a large­ly Jew­ish dis­trict as did near­ly all the New York social­ists vot­ed to munic­i­pal and state office.12

The real­i­ties of the Amer­i­can trade union move­ment also lim­it­ed social­ist suc­cess. Gom­pers and the polit­i­cal machine that he con­struct­ed with­in the AFL waged cease­less war­fare against social­ist pen­e­tra­tion of the Fed­er­a­tion. And among the unions led by social­ists, the more they suc­ceed­ed in wrest­ing con­ces­sions from employ­ers with whom they bar­gained, the less social­ism appealed to the rank and file who took the mon­ey and ran.

World War and the Crisis of Socialism

None of this, how­ev­er, dis­suad­ed Amer­i­can social­ists pri­or to World War I that their future prospects were cir­cum­scribed. At first U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion in the war redound­ed to the advan­tage of the SPA. Unlike Euro­pean social­ists who had frac­tured when war erupt­ed in the sum­mer of 1914, with the major­i­ty among them choos­ing nation­al­ism over inter­na­tion­al­ism, the SPA cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly reject­ed U.S. entry into the con­flict and ini­tial­ly paid no polit­i­cal price for its deci­sion. In fact, in New York City and else­where the SPA won elec­toral vic­to­ries in munic­i­pal and state elec­tions in 1917 and 1918. Mor­ris Hillquit amassed more votes in 1917 as a can­di­date for New York may­or than any pre­vi­ous third-par­ty can­di­date, and the SPA elect­ed ten state assem­bly­men, five alder­men and a munic­i­pal judge. A year lat­er the SPA amassed as many votes but man­aged to elect only one of its can­di­dates (a state assem­bly­man) because in all the oth­er state assem­bly dis­tricts and Mey­er London’s con­gres­sion­al dis­trict, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can par­ties ran joint can­di­dates. The Mil­wau­kee par­ty expe­ri­enced sim­i­lar suc­cess main­tain­ing its con­trol of local gov­ern­ment and return­ing Berg­er to Con­gress.13 Local elec­toral suc­cess­es in 1917 and 1918, how­ev­er, dis­guised a more somber real­i­ty. The SPA may have reject­ed U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion in the war but only at the cost of los­ing many of its U.S.-born mem­bers, sev­er­al of whom became active ser­vants of the Wil­son wartime admin­is­tra­tion.

Wartime patri­o­tism, more­over, result­ed in the sav­age repres­sion of anti­war social­ists. Con­gress refused to seat Berg­er after his reelec­tion in 1918. Two years lat­er, the New York State leg­is­la­ture sim­i­lar­ly refused to seat new­ly elect­ed SPA assem­bly­men from New York City, even after their con­stituents gave them a sec­ond elec­toral vic­to­ry (the SPA, how­ev­er, did reelect Lon­don and Con­gress allowed him to serve). Debs and oth­er social­ists paid an even high­er price for their resis­tance to wartime patri­o­tism, indict­ed and tried for vio­la­tion of the espi­onage and sedi­tion acts passed in 1917 and 1918 and sen­tenced to terms in fed­er­al pen­i­ten­tiaries. The gov­ern­ment leashed the social­ist press by deny­ing SPA papers and mag­a­zines the right to mail copies to sub­scribers or to sell pub­li­ca­tions at com­mer­cial out­lets. The party’s once loud voice had been silenced. And then the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion and the cre­ation of the Sovi­et Union ren­dered per­haps a final shock to the SPA. The bulk of the party’s for­eign lan­guage fed­er­a­tions and many of its younger and more active Amer­i­can-born mem­bers, John Reed, James Can­non, and Max East­man most notably, bolt­ed to join one of the two new com­mu­nist par­ties that had emerged in 1919. The com­bi­na­tion of wartime repres­sion and com­mu­nist com­pe­ti­tion spelled doom for the SPA. Despite one last hur­rah, Debs final cam­paign for the pres­i­den­cy in 1920 while still impris­oned, the SPA was doomed as an effec­tive polit­i­cal force.14

Social­ism remained alive and well in Mil­wau­kee, where social­ists held local polit­i­cal pow­er well into the 1950s, in Bridge­port, Con­necti­cut among sev­er­al sim­i­lar small­er indus­tri­al cities, and among Jew­ish Amer­i­cans con­cen­trat­ed in the gar­ment trades unions and most espe­cial­ly in New York City where they con­tin­ued to read the Vor­waerts. Nation­al­ly, how­ev­er, the SPA nev­er recov­ered from the blows deliv­ered by world war and then fol­lowed only a decade lat­er by the Great Depres­sion and the New Deal. By the mid­dle of the 1930s three worlds cir­cum­scribed the lives of the gar­ment trades union­ists, the read­ers of the For­ward, and New York’s Jew­ish Amer­i­cans, “di welt, yene welt, un Roo­sevelt.”15 The par­ty may have lived on insti­tu­tion­al­ly even as it lost the bulk of its mem­bers and vot­ers to the New Deal Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty, New York’s Amer­i­can Labor Par­ty or Minnesota’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Farmer-Labor Par­ty, but not with­out endur­ing yet more inter­nal war­fare, addi­tion­al deser­tions, and com­pet­ing ver­sions of social­ism. Each fac­tion preached to an ever small­er cho­rus of its true believ­ers, a steadi­ly shrink­ing “amen cor­ner.”16

Socialism Today

Despite decades of defeat, it’s unde­ni­able that social­ism has once again crept back into the main­stream. In 2011, a Pew Poll revealed that 49 per­cent of Amer­i­cans under thir­ty had a pos­i­tive view of social­ism, a find­ing con­firmed in more recent polls. Noth­ing illus­trates this new open­ness to social­ism more than the can­di­da­cy of Bernie Sanders. But even with this new ener­gy, a num­ber of ques­tions and chal­lenges remain. What, for exam­ple, does social­ism mean to all those who pro­fess an open­ness to it today? A reborn New Deal, the abo­li­tion of cap­i­tal­ism alto­geth­er, or some­thing in between? Just as social­ists cease­less­ly debat­ed and dis­cussed the mean­ing of the term a cen­tu­ry ago, we will have to col­lec­tive­ly rede­fine social­ism for our own time.

More impor­tant­ly, even if social­ist sen­ti­ment is unde­ni­ably on the rise, an orga­nized social­ist move­ment is only in its infan­cy. As we con­tin­ue to reflect on how to trans­form this new inter­est in social­ism into an orga­nized polit­i­cal force, the pre­ced­ing his­to­ry of the SPA could pro­vide some direc­tion. Of course, his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions have changed enor­mous­ly. Gone are the days of grow­ing indus­tri­al fac­to­ries, a rel­a­tive­ly lim­it­ed and decen­tral­ized state, and a seem­ing­ly ever-expand­ing labor move­ment – all fac­tors in the SPA’s rise. Nev­er­the­less, some of the keys to the SPA’s suc­cess may still serve us today – the need to encour­age a vibrant, diverse, mul­ti-lin­gual social­ist press; to link with immi­grant strug­gles; to fos­ter a social­ist ecosys­tem com­posed of var­i­ous over­lap­ping groups, asso­ci­a­tions, and move­ments; and to con­nect with the self-activ­i­ty of dif­fer­ent kinds of work­ers across the coun­try, which, in our time, might help revi­tal­ize a mil­i­tant work­ers’ move­ment.

Above all, the SPA high­light­ed the strate­gic poten­tial of elec­toral strug­gle. In the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, social­ists built a move­ment on the dynam­ic cir­cuit between elec­toral strug­gle on the one side and the innu­mer­able extra-par­lia­men­tary strug­gles on the oth­er. It remains to be seen if the Sanders cam­paign – as well as oth­er, more local, elec­toral cam­paigns – can do the same today. In this respect, the his­to­ry of the SPA may once again offer some insight by high­light­ing the many lim­i­ta­tions, chal­lenges, and dan­gers of social­ist orga­niz­ing, espe­cial­ly at the elec­toral lev­el. Can the Sanders cam­paign effec­tive­ly con­nect with pre-exist­ing strug­gles, such as the fight against racism or the strug­gle for a fif­teen dol­lar min­i­mum wage and a union? Is his cam­paign open­ing spaces for oth­er social­ists to run for office at a state or local lev­el? And are the Democ­rats poised to once again sweep up the hard work done by social­ists? These are the ques­tions we must answer as we try to rede­fine “social­ism” for the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry and forge an autonomous social­ist move­ment.

  1. Two excel­lent biogra­phies offer read­ers all they need to know about how and why Debs became a social­ist and the sources of his pop­u­lar appeal. Ray Gin­ger, The Bend­ing Cross: A Biog­ra­phy of Eugene Vic­tor Debs (New Brunswick, NJ: Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1949) and Nick Sal­va­tore, Eugene V. Debs: Cit­i­zen and Social­ist (Urbana, IL: Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Press, 1982), the more recent and per­cep­tive study. 

  2. Dur­ing his first run for the pres­i­den­cy, in 1900, Debs ran on the Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty of the Unit­ed States (SDP) tick­et, since the Social­ist Par­ty of Amer­i­ca had not yet been for­mal­ly estab­lished. 

  3. For an old­er but still use­ful his­to­ry of the par­ty, see David Shan­non, The Social­ist Par­ty of Amer­i­ca (New York: Macmil­lan, 1955). For more recent and supe­ri­or his­to­ries, see James Wein­stein, The Decline of Social­ism in Amer­i­ca, 1912-1925 (NY: Month­ly Review Press: 1967), chap­ter 2 for the hey­day of social­ist elec­toral suc­cess, and Jack Ross, The Social­ist Par­ty of Amer­i­ca: A Com­plete His­to­ry (Lin­coln: Potomac Books, 2015), chap­ters 5-6. 

  4. Melvyn Dubof­sky, “Suc­cess and Fail­ure of Social­ism in New York City, 1900-1918: A Case Study,” Labor His­to­ry 9 (Fall 1968): 374. 

  5. Judith Walz­er Leav­itt, The Health­i­est City: Mil­wau­kee and the Pol­i­tics of Health Reform (Madi­son: Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin Press, 1996) and Sal­ly Miller, Vic­tor Berg­er and the Promise of Con­struc­tive Social­ism, 1910-1920 (West­port, CT: Green­wood Press, 1973), see espe­cial­ly chap­ters 2-4. 

  6. James R. Green, Grass Roots Social­ism: Rad­i­cal Move­ments in the South­west, 1895-1943 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1978); Car­los Schwantes, Rad­i­cal Her­itage: Labor, Social­ism, and Reform in Wash­ing­ton State and British Colum­bia, 1885-1917 (Seat­tle: Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton Press, 1979). 

  7. Dubof­sky, “Suc­cess and Fail­ure,” 363. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Miller, Vic­tor Berg­er, 51-53. 

  10. Mari Jo Buh­le, Women and Amer­i­can Social­ism, 1870-1920 (Urbana, IL: Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Press, 1983); See also, Wein­stein, The Decline of Social­ism, 53-73. 

  11. Ross, The Social­ist Par­ty of Amer­i­ca, chap­ters 5-6. 

  12. Dubof­sky, “Suc­cess and Fail­ure,” 366-72. 

  13. M. Dubof­sky, “Suc­cess and Fail­ure,” 370-72; Wein­stein, The Decline of Social­ism in Amer­i­ca, chap­ters 3; Ross, The Social­ist Par­ty of Amer­i­ca, chap­ters 6-7. 

  14. J. Wein­stein, The Decline of Social­ism in Amer­i­ca, chap­ters 3-4; Ross, The Social­ist Par­ty of Amer­i­ca, chap­ters 7-8. 

  15. Irv­ing Howe, The World of Our Fathers (New York: Har­court, 1976), 393. 

  16. Ross, The Social­ist Par­ty of Amer­i­ca, chap­ters 12-20 pro­vides the most com­plete his­to­ry of the SPA’s sad lat­er years. 

Author of the article

is Distinguished Professor of History & sociology Emeritus at Binghamton U. SUNY. Has served as Fulbright Professor at Tel Aviv University and University of Salzburg, Austria and the John Adams Professor of American History at the U. Of Amsterdam. Also taught with EP Thompson at Centre for Social History, U. Of Warwick. Author of numerous books and essays in US labor history, including We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World and Industrialism and the American Worker, 1865-1920.