The 19th century had been a period of rapid industrial expansion in America. Between 1800 and 1900 the per capita wealth of the country had increased from $200 to $1,200. However, the distribution of this wealth was extremely uneven. A report published in Arena in 1901 revealed that 1 per cent of the population owned 54 per cent of the wealth. That two-hundredth of a per cent (4,000 millionaires) had 20 per cent of the total wealth.
In 1872 Victoria Woodhull, he leader of the International Workingman's Association in New York City published The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Later that year Woodhull was nominated as the presidential candidate of the Equal Rights Party. Although laws prohibited women from voting, there was nothing stopping women from running for office. Woodhull suggested that Frederick Douglass should become her running partner but he declined the offer.
During the campaign Woodhull called for the "reform of political and social abuses; the emancipation of labor, and the enfranchisement of women". Woodhull also argued in favour of improved civil rights and the abolition of capital punishment. These policies gained her the support of socialists, trade unionists and women suffragists. However, her name did not appear on the ballot because she was one year short of the Constitutionally mandated age of thirty-five.
It was this economic situation that stimulated a growth in socialist ideas in the United States. In 1874 a group of socialists formed the Workingmen's Party. Three years later it was renamed the Socialist Labor Party. Some members of the party came under the influence of the anarchist ideas of the German revolutionary, Johann Most.
In 1886 the party became involved in helping organize the campaign for the eight-hour day. At one meeting on 4th May, in Chicago, the Haymarket Bombing took place and several former members of the party, including August Spies, Albert Parson, Adolph Fisher and George Engel, were found guilty of conspiracy to murder and executed.
Daniel De Leon and Laurence Gronlund emerged as leader of the Socialist Labor Party in the 1890s. De Leon, a Marxist, favoured the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. However, Gronlund, in books such as Cooperative Commonwealth (1884), Our Destiny (1891), The New Economy (1898) and Socializing a State (1898) advocated a reformist approach to socialism.
The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was founded in 1897 by a group of left-wing journalists and trade union activists. Leading figures included Eugene Debs, Victor Berger and Ella Reeve Bloor. In 1901 the SDP merged with Socialist Labor Party to form the Socialist Party of America.
The new Socialist Party of America claimed a membership of 10,000 and over the next few years leading figures in the party included Daniel De Leon, Philip Randolph, Emil Seidel, Julius Wayland, Fred Warren, Chandler Owen, William Z. Foster, Abraham Cahan, Sidney Hillman, Morris Hillquit, Walter Reuther, Bill Haywood, Margaret Sanger, Kate Richards O'Hare, Florence Kelley, Rose Pastor Stokes, Mary White Ovington, Helen Keller, Inez Milholland, Floyd Dell, William Du Bois, Hubert Harrison, Upton Sinclair, Mary Lease, Victor Berger, Daniel Hoan, Frank Zeidler, Robert Hunter, George Herron, Claude McKay, Sinclair Lewis, Max Eastman, William Walling and Jack London .
On the outbreak of the First World War most socialists in the United States were opposed to the conflict. They claimed that the war had been caused by the imperialist competitive system and argued that the America should remain neutral. This was also the view expressed in the three main socialist journals, Appeal to Reason, The Masses and The Call.
After the USA declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, the government passed the Espionage Act. Under this act it was an offence to make speeches that undermined the war effort. Criticised as unconstitutional, the act resulted in the imprisonment of many members of the anti-war movement including 450 conscientious objectors. During the First World War several Socialist Party members, including Eugene Debs, Kate Richards O'Hare, Victor Berger and Rose Pastor Stokes were imprisoned for their anti-war activities.
After the First World War, the attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, became convinced that communist and socialists were planning to overthrow the American government. Palmer recruited John Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and together they used the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) to launch a campaign against radicals and left-wing organizations.
On 7th November, 1919, the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested in what became known as the Palmer Raids. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects were held without trial for a long time. The vast majority were eventually released but Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Mollie Steimer, and 245 other people, were deported to Russia.
In 1920 Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party of America presidential candidate, received 919,799 votes while still in Atlanta Penitentiary. His program included proposals for improved labour conditions, housing and welfare legislation and an increase in the number of people who could vote in elections.
As a result of this Red Scare people became worried about subscribing to left-wing journals and the Appeal to Reason, which was selling 760,000 copies a week before the First World War, was forced to close in November, 1922. The following year The Call ceased publication.
After the death of Eugene Debs in 1926 Norman Thomas became the leader of the party and was its presidential candidate in 1928, 1932 and 1936. As a result of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his successful New Deal policies, some members of the party such as David Dubinsky, called for socialists to vote for the Democratic Party, in 1936. As a result the Socialist Party vote dropped to 185,000, less than 20 per cent of that achieved in 1932. However the party continued to do well in certain cities such as Milwaukee, where Daniel Hoan was mayor of the city between 1916 and 1940.
During the McCarthy Era membership of the party fell to below 2,000 members. A large number of socialists including Walter Reuther, Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, left the party with the view that you had more chance of achieving progressive reform by being active in the Democratic Party.
In 1976 the Socialist Party ran a presidential campaign for the first time in twenty years. Frank Zeidler, the former mayor of Milwaukee (1948-60), was nominated as president. Other presidential candidates have included David McReynolds (1980 and 2000), Willa Kenoyer (1988), John Quinn Brisben (1992), Mary Cal Hollis (1996), Walt Brown (2004), Brian Moore (2008) and Stewart Alexander (2012).