The early American socialists

May 30, 2012

Jason Netek describes the roots of the early socialist movement in the U.S.

TODAY, IT'S assumed that socialist ideas and organization are alien concepts within the American political landscape. But a century ago, there were several socialist tendencies in the U.S. engaged to varying degrees in the struggles around them and in debates with one another.

Before the 1870s, small groups influenced by the ideas of utopian socialism dominated the socialist scene in the U.S. European utopians like Robert Owen and Charles Fourier envisioned a new egalitarian society that would emerge out of small-scale cooperative efforts designed to prove the viability of human cooperation beyond a shadow of a doubt.

The idea was that these cooperatives would outmaneuver the existing social order and ultimately supplant it through a process of relatively friendly competition, as superior forms of utopian socialist organization would gradually crowd out the exploitative dynamics of capitalism.

In contrast, the modern socialist movement bases itself on the understanding that masses of working people must confront the challenge of capitalism head on.

Eugene Debs in 1897
Eugene Debs in 1897

THE SOCIALIST Labor Party was the first real attempt to establish a mass working-class party in the U.S. Founded in 1876 as the Workingmen's Party (WP), the party was the end result of a series of biannual unity congresses held by supporters of the International Workingmen's Association and electorally oriented reformers influenced by the German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle.

The coming together of action-oriented socialists marked a major step forward from the utopianism of the earlier movement, but it also showed quickly that differences among activists regarding strategy and tactics can be enormous. One wing of the party was exclusively committed to political action in the form of electoral campaigns while the other was oriented entirely around organizing workers into unions.

In neither school of thought was there room to consider other more revolutionary methods of struggle. In 1877, a year after the founding of the WP, a railroad strike gave rise to a full-blown labor rebellion that rocked the nation. Railroad workers in town after town went on strike and engaged in pitched battles with private security goons and the National Guard. They halted the main arteries of the U.S. economy by uncoupling rail cars and refusing to allow their movement as they fought to defy the rail industry's push to impose wage reductions.

As thousands of workers joined in the strike, the struggle spread to other industries, and in some cases, near general strikes shut down large parts of cities. Black and white workers united together and in many instances took up arms to defend themselves against local militias sent to break the strikes by force.

The WP found itself thrust into a leading role through its organizing of mass meetings and allowing its members to sit on strike committees. But instead of using this influence to effectively unite disparate groups of workers on strike in different regions and against different rail companies, the WP leaders denounced "violence on both sides."

The false equation of militias attempting to defeat the strike by force of arms and workers fighting to protect their livelihoods and their lives rang hollow among rail workers and many others who were willing to support their strike. Ultimately, the Great Strike of 1877 was put down by armed militias and federal troops. The WP responded with appeals for workers to vote socialist in the next election.

The limited horizons of the WP turned off many who understood the need for a more action-oriented approach to organizing the workers' movement. Several splits from the party produced various organizations and parties with anarchist leanings, and these groups went on to play important roles in the major episodes of working-class struggle, such as the fight for the eight-hour day.

By the 1890s, the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), as the WP had come to be called, was dominated by the dogmatic Daniel DeLeon, whose sectarian approach not only led the party away from strictly reformist politics, but also away from the struggle for reforms altogether.

The party's trade union work was redirected into various campaigns to transform these mass organizations for workers' self-defense into explicitly revolutionary organizations. When such projects failed, SLP members would be instructed to leave the unions and form new "radical" unions that wouldn't bargain for small gains, but rather would agitate against the system altogether.

But this approach meant that such "radical" unions were poorly equipped to fight for better working conditions for their members. Thus, whatever successes such "radical" unions had in signing up members was often short-lived as workers turned their backs on unions that could not defend them on the job.

Inside the SLP, individual members and even whole sections were expelled for putting forward alternative perspectives. The result of such policies was an increasing isolation of the party and even more splits. One split in particular saw nearly half the organization depart in order to explore other methods for conducting meaningful political action.

DURING THIS same period, another socialist party was coming into existence. The Social Democratic Party of America (SDP) was formed in 1898 as the result of a split from another divided organization, the Social Democracy of America (SDA).

The SDA attempted to unite political action-oriented socialists with utopians who intended to build model communes like those advocated by Fourier and Owen. The utopians wanted to prefigure the new society while the other half of the party intended to consciously intervene in struggles to transform existing social conditions.

A unified party pulling in two different directions proved to be impossible to cohere, and after a series of frustrated attempts to establish a cooperative colony, the delegates representing the activist wing of the SDA left the 1898 convention and assembled across the street to form their own party, the SDP, which would actively intervene in American political life.

The new party's leadership included Victor Berger and Eugene Debs, each of whom would go on to gain prominence as the principal spokesperson for two radically different visions of socialism. Berger ended up on the conservative edge of the socialist movement while Debs spoke for the radical wing of the socialist movement.

Though the differences among those in the "political-action" camp of American socialism would emerge in sharper form later, in the early days, the two wings were united in their rejection of schemes to build prefigurative societies in the here and now and their desire to give political leadership to the struggles of workers, from the factory floor to the ballot box.

By late 1899, demands for a united socialist organization began to come from the rank and file of the SDP as well as from a large section of the SLP that had broken away in rejection of their own party's opposition to fighting for reforms and what they saw as the dogmatism of the party leadership.

Despite the nearly identical platforms of the two parties, merger negotiations lasted almost two years. But it should also be acknowledged that differences within the two groups would be just as important as differences between them. For example, Berger stood against unity with the SLP breakaway on principle because he saw the party as too heavily influenced by Marxism--while Debs considered his and Berger's own party itself to be guided by the ideas of Marx and Engels, and was more concerned that their new allies would bring over what he saw as the bad habits of the party they split from.

Despite the protracted unification process, the two organizations agreed to work together on a single campaign for the upcoming presidential election. Debs ran as the new party's candidate in the presidential election of 1900 and won 87,000 votes. This would be the lowest number of votes Debs would ever get as a Socialist candidate. Joseph Malloney of the SLP scored another 50,000.

By 1901, the newly united party had absorbed a few independent socialist groups and after a series of conventions officially adopted the name Socialist Party of America. The Socialist Party would dominate the U.S. left for the next 20 years.

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