The Socialist Party’s early years

February 25, 2011

In the early years of the 20th century, the ideas of socialism began to reach a mass audience in the U.S. Brian Erway looks at the origins of the Socialist Party.

AS THE U.S. entered the 20th century, the power of the capitalist class grew enormously. Their giant monopolies and trusts came to dominate whole branches of industry and much of the economic landscape.

The capitalists' cohesion, and their control of the government, allowed them to defeat industrial struggles by workers as well as various single-issue reform campaigns, such as those for temperance, free coinage of silver, issuance of paper money, public ownership of utilities and other populist demands.

Disillusioned by the failure of such movements for mild reform, many began to recognize that only socialism could provide a comprehensive solution to society's problems.

Those active in the socialist movement were convinced that the tide of history was in their favor--socialism was in the air, and only a few national elections were separating them from establishing the cooperative commonwealth. Many of them linked socialism fundamentally to the struggle by workers for collective control of the products of their labor.

Eugene Debs featured in a poster for the Socialist Party's 1912 presidential ticket
Eugene Debs featured in a poster for the Socialist Party's 1912 presidential ticket

The series of organizations established over the next several years represented the first faltering attempts to organize revolutionary socialists into a party of some size and influence, and culminated in the formation of the Socialist Party (SP) in 1901.

THE U.S. government had used troops to break the Pullman strike and boycott of 1894, and imprisoned Eugene Debs and other strike leaders of the American Railway Union.

Following his release from prison, Debs announced his conversion to socialism and began to work vigorously to build a movement to realized that aim. The remnants of the American Railway Union met for the organization's last convention in 1897, and thereupon changed its name to the Social Democracy of America.

The new organization espoused two contradictory strategies toward winning socialism: it would first of all attempt to elect its members to public office in all states where it was active, and thus campaign locally for socialist demands. It would also raise funds for the purpose of establishing a large-scale socialist colonization project in a Western state.

Once successfully in operation, such a colony would quickly spread by example and win power in the state government, and ultimately throughout the country.

The two strategies were incompatible, and at the organization's first convention the following year, those supporting political action split form the utopian colonizers and formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in June 1898. Behind the motto "Pure Socialism and no compromise," the delegates were able to unite revolutionaries like Debs with reform-minded socialists into a movement whose aims was essentially government ownership.

The SDP's initial growth came largely through the efforts of Debs, who toured widely and addressed socialist meetings nearly every day. In some cities, the SDP gained influence in local campaign for "municipal socialism," whose programs were practically indistinguishable from those of middle-class reform movements.

The SDP also picked up individuals and even entire branches of members who had left or been expelled from the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) under Daniel DeLeon. By 1899, a major split in the SLP had opened up over opposition to DeLeon's autocratic party regime, and especially the SLP's dual union policy of promoting the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance against the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

The anti-DeLeon faction was led by Morris Hillquit, a New York corporate lawyer, and for a while, it constituted its own National Executive Committee and published its own version of the SLP's weekly newspaper The People. After a lengthy and confusing period of negotiations for fusion, the SDP and the anti-DeLeon SLP united to run Eugene Debs and Job Harriman as their presidential and vice presidential candidates in the 1900 election, polling 97,000 votes.

Finally, in July 1901, a unity convention established the Socialist Party of America, with headquarters in St. Louis. Over the next decade, the Socialist Party (SP) was able to achieve considerable gains and win thousands to the cause of socialism through its tireless publicizing and its vigorous electioneering.

Starting with a membership of less than 10,000, the party grew to 150,000 dues-paying member at the peak of its power in 1912.

Socialist candidates challenged the parties of capitalism at all electoral levels--municipal, state and federal. In the 1912 presidential election, Debs won 900,000 votes, representing 6 percent of the total cast. Throughout this period, over 2,000 socialists were elected to public office, and party members secured hundreds of reforms.

The Socialist Party was also a focus for uniting thousands of militants in the struggles of the working class. Some of the country's best-known labor militants, such as Eugene Debs and William "Big Bill" Haywood, were also leaders in the Socialist Party.

Party members won influence in the American Federation of Labor, and were involved in the formation of a small but militant revolutionary union, the American Labor Union, in 1903. The newspapers and magazines that made up the SP press conducted vigorous campaigns defending workers in their struggles against capital, and the party frequently raised money for relief of strikers.

BUT THE party did suffer serous political defects that prevented it from being able to unite and lead the working class in its struggles against capitalism.

In the first place, it was not a party based on any commonly worked-out conception of what constituted "socialism," but instead tried to unite all shades of opinion on the matter. Thus, even after the utopian colonizers had left the movement, there were still Christian socialists, municipal of "constructive" socialists, revolutionary socialists and socialists of the center.

Indeed, factional divisions into a right and left wing was a features from the very beginning of the party. Making the situation even more difficult was the loose federal structure of the party, with each state or local organization holding a large degree of autonomy.

Moreover, the party press consisted of publications that were edited and published not by the party itself, but by individuals or groups affiliated to the party. They were therefore not responsible to any central authority over the positions they took.

As a result, there was within the party considerable ambiguity and even reactionary position on a whole number of issues, such as imperialism, immigration and racism. Local organizations in the Southern states, for instance, refused to allow Blacks as members, and proposed segregated locals instead.

But the most fatal defect, affecting all wings of the Socialist Party, was its single-minded adherence to "political action," and divorce from economic struggles, as the realm of party activity. Participation in the electoral activities became the lever through which the workers would win socialism.

Such a strategy led most of the party to a myopic focus on elections as the most important arena of contest with the capitalists, and then to political opportunism in order to win the most votes. Other activity seemed restricted to rather abstract propaganda through publications and meetings designed to enlighten workers enough to vote socialist.

Electoralism fit very well with the right wing's anti-revolutionary advocacy of building socialism one step at a time. Municipal socialism, really just liberal reformism with a "socialist" gloss, was most effective at getting socialists into public office.

Its arch-practitioner, Victor Berger of Milwaukee, led the SP's right wing and was eventually elected to U.S. Congress. Such "constructive" socialists argued the need to appeal to middle-class votes and to tone down any working-class content to socialist politics.

Over time, the right wing and its ideas exerted dominant influence within the SP, and by 1912, its factional activities had effectively defeated the "industrial socialism" of the party's left wing.

The Socialist Party's exclusive emphasis on electoralism meant that its members largely abstained from trying to lead the day-to day-struggles of workers. Official policy declined to take sides in union matter, and intervention in the labor movement consisted not of arguing how win disputes, but instead of trying to pass pro-socialist resolutions at union and AFL conventions.

Many workers who favored socialism but questioned the SP's self-limitation to "political action" were attracted instead to the ideas of syndicalism, and the building to revolutionary industrial unions as the proper organizations to fight capitalism. In particular, many workers who wanted to engage in activity were drawn to participation in the Industrial Workers of the World after its formation in 1905.

Even as the SP was approaching its greatest electoral success in its vote for the 1912 elections, many working-class members were leaving the party in disgust over its rightward direction.

An entire ward branch resigned in 1909 and condemned the party's leadership, which was no longer proletarian, but "composed of preachers without pulpits, lawyers without clients, doctors without patients, storekeepers without customers, disgruntled political coyotes and other riff-raff."

This article originally appeared in Socialist Worker in August 1989.

Further Reading

From the archives