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When the Socialist Party was formed 100 years ago
Birth of the socialist tradition in the U.S.

August 31, 2001 | Page 10

ONE HUNDRED years ago this July, some 100 labor activists and political radicals gathered in Indianapolis to form the Socialist Party (SP) of America. The SP became the dominant radical political force in the U.S. for two decades, until the Communist Party surpassed it after the First World War.

At the peak of its influence, the SP had more than 150,000 dues-paying members and published hundreds of newspapers and pamphlets. The party twice won nearly a million votes for its presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs--the greatest spokesperson for socialism that America has yet produced.

As BILL ROBERTS shows, the history of the SP challenges the lie that socialist ideas can never take root in the U.S.

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WHEN THE Socialist Party was established 100 years ago, socialism was a growing and popular alternative to the robber-baron greed that shaped the world at the turn of the 20th century.

Workers' and small farmers' dreams of job security and rising living standards had turned into a nightmare of wage cuts and unemployment for growing numbers.

In this environment, the birth of a political party that offered a different vision from the Republicans and Democrats captured the attention of thousands and gave life to a growing movement.

It won the support of one-third of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) union federation, and its activists helped to found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

From its beginning, the SP was a collection of groups and individuals representing the entire range of American radicalism--from Marxists to Christian socialists, from foreign-language sections to Jewish Zionists.

This wide political tent would eventually lead to the party's downfall. But in the beginning, the SP had wide support as a haven for the disenfranchised and the engine of a progressive social movement.

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THE EARLY socialist movement in the U.S. was divided between those who believed that it was futile to seek reforms under capitalism and those who wanted to follow the European tradition of socialists organizing to have a voice in the political system.

By the end of the 19th century, the movement was split between these two approaches. The SP represented the unity of groups descended from both traditions.

A wing of the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), the first Marxist party in the U.S., had revolted against the party's refusal to get involved in day-to-day political and economic struggles. This group, nicknamed the "Kangaroos," joined with the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which Eugene V. Debs and other working-class activists had formed in the wake of the defeat of the 1894 Pullman strike.

For Debs, the lesson of the strike was clear--workers had been defeated by the coordinated actions of federal, state and local police forces, the courts and a press loyal to the railway bosses. Democrats--like President Grover Cleveland, who ordered federal troops into Chicago--were just as intent on crushing the Pullman strike as Republicans.

Debs, a one-time supporter of the Democrats, turned toward socialism. "At this juncture," Debs later wrote, "there was delivered, from wholly unexpected quarters, a swift succession of blows that blinded me for an instant and then opened wide my eyes--and in the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle, the class struggle was revealed. This was my first practical lesson in socialism."

Despite their differences, members of the SDP and the Kangaroos united around the principle that the working class needed its own political party as an alternative to the bosses' parties.

The Socialist Party could claim the support of thousands prior to the First World War, becoming one of the few genuine third parties in 20th-century American politics. It elected two members of Congress, more than 70 mayors, and numerous city and state officials.

In 1912 and again in 1920, Debs received close to a million votes for president. His 1920 showing was all the more remarkable because Debs campaigned from inside the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where he was imprisoned in 1918 for opposing the First World War.

The SP was one of the very few socialist parties internationally to maintain its opposition to the First World War. But the imperialist conflict eventually forced many of the different political currents inside the SP into open disputes.

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FROM THE beginning, the SP had compromised on the question of "reform or revolution." Socialist city officials instituted reforms like municipally owned power and improved sanitation. SP figures like Victor Berger, a representative in the U.S. House from Wisconsin, and Daniel Hoan, the SP mayor of Milwaukee, argued that the party should work through the government to make "constructive" reforms of capitalism.

SP radicals, like Western Federation of Miners and IWW leader Big Bill Haywood, chided the Bergers and Hoans as "sewer socialists." The radicals believed that the SP needed to build for working-class revolution in the U.S.

But while this left wing represented the best elements of the party, it neglected political action. Plus many left-wingers adopted a hands-off attitude toward the AFL--arguing that the conservative union federation would never organize the mass of workers and orienting almost exclusively on the radical IWW. This left the majority of organized workers in the U.S. under the influence of the right-wing AFL leaders.

In the early 1910s, the SP right wing won its first major battle with the left when it pushed through a party resolution expelling any SP member who engaged in "violence." The resolution was aimed squarely at the IWW and other labor radicals who used direct action as a tactic and often fought pitched battles with police and state militias. Under the cover of the resolution, the SP right wing carried out a purge of radicals.

The First World War and the 1917 revolution in Russia revived the SP's left wing and drew a line between the two poles in the party. Taking its inspiration and lead from Russia's victorious Bolsheviks, the left won support for a revolutionary program--and even won a majority of seats on the party's national executive in 1919, only to have right-wingers on the sitting executive body overturn the election.

Following that maneuver, left-wing delegates to the party's 1919 Chicago convention walked out--and formed organizations that later became the Communist Party.

With the left wing gone, much of the SP's dynamism disappeared, too. Debs' political sympathies were with the left-wingers. But he never abandoned the party that he had done so much to build.

The SP didn't run a candidate for president in 1924, joining with the AFL and the railroad brotherhoods to back Sen. Robert La Follette, a progressive Republican from Wisconsin, in the hopes of building a Farmer-Labor Party.

Four years later, under the leadership of the pacifist Norman Thomas, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, the SP returned to independent electoral activity.

With the coming of the Great Depression, it gained a new audience. In 1932, Thomas received 896,000 votes for president. But four years later, the party could only achieve 20 percent of its 1932 vote total, as the New Deal Democrats captured the left vote.

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WHAT DO socialists today have to say about the experience of the SP?

First, it proved that socialism could be a real political alternative for American workers and farmers.

But the party's many weaknesses are only too obvious. The internal splits between right, left and center were only a symptom of a broader weakness--the SP couldn't decide whether it wanted to manage capitalism better or overthrow it.

That's why it could contain within its ranks businessmen and professionals--the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once disparaged the SP as "a party of dentists and lawyers"--as well as working-class fighters.

Party leaders like Debs opposed racism and argued that Black and white workers should fight together. But other SP leaders openly embraced racial segregation!

"From these conflicting conceptions of socialist theory, organization and activity," wrote historian Ira Kipnis, "it is not possible to generalize with certainty on what the Socialist Party as a party thought it was doing or accomplishing."

Nevertheless, the SP gave a generation of working-class militants a forum where they could learn important lessons. The courage and devotion of the left-wing socialists in the SP contributed a lot to the struggle for a democratic and just society in the U.S.

Through the IWW, they organized unskilled and semi-skilled workers into unions, led strikes, fought for civil rights and established a tradition of revolutionary socialism that carried forward into the Communist Party.

And under the influence of the Russian Revolution, the SP's left wing learned the most important lesson of all--the need to bring working-class militants together in a party with clear revolutionary socialist politics.

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