Socialist Party of America

In 1901 the Social Democratic Party (SDP) merged with Socialist Labor Party to form the Socialist Party of America. Leading figures in this party included Eugene Debs, Victor Berger, Ella Reeve Bloor, Emil Seidel, Daniel De Leon, Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, William Z. Foster, Abraham Cahan, Sidney Hillman, Morris Hillquit, John Spargo, Walter Reuther, Bill Haywood, Margaret Sanger, Florence Kelley, Rose Pastor Stokes, Mary White Ovington, Helen Keller, Inez Milholland, Floyd Dell, William Du Bois, Hubert Harrison, Upton Sinclair, Agnes Smedley, Victor Berger, Robert Hunter, George Herron, Kate Richards O'Hare, Helen Keller, Claude McKay, Sinclair Lewis, Daniel Hoan, Frank Zeidler, Max Eastman, Bayard Rustin, James Larkin, Louis Waldman, Meyer London, William Walling and Jack London.

In the 1904 Presidential Election it was decided that Eugene Debs should be the Socialist Party of America candidate. His running-mate was Benjamin Hanford. Debs finished third to Theodore Roosevelt with 402,810 votes. This was an impressive performance and in the 1908 Presidential Election he managed to increase his vote to 420,793.

Eugene V. Debs <empty>

During this period Eugene Debs led the campaign for the release of William Haywood and Charles Moyer: "There have been twenty years of revolutionary education, agitation, and organization since the Haymarket tragedy, and if an attempt is made to repeat it, there will be a revolution and I will do all in my power to precipitate it. If they attempt to murder Moyer, Haywood, and their brothers, a million revolutionists at least will meet them with guns."

Between 1901 and 1912 membership of the Socialist Party of America grew from 13,000 to 118,000 and its journal Appeal to Reason was selling 500,000 copies a week. This provided a great platform for Eugene Debs and his running-mate, Emil Seidel, in the 1912 Presidential Election. During the campaign Debs explained why people should vote for him: "You must either vote for or against your own material interests as a wealth producer; there is no political purgatory in this nation of ours, despite the desperate efforts of so-called Progressive capitalists politicians to establish one. Socialism alone represents the material heaven of plenty for those who toil and the Socialist Party alone offers the political means for attaining that heaven of economic plenty which the toil of the workers of the world provides in unceasing and measureless flow. Capitalism represents the material hell of want and pinching poverty of degradation and prostitution for those who toil and in which you now exist, and each and every political party, other than the Socialist Party, stands for the perpetuation of the economic hell of capitalism. For the first time in all history you who toil possess the power to peacefully better your own condition. The little slip of paper which you hold in your hand on election day is more potent than all the armies of all the kings of earth."

Eugene Debs and Emil Seidel won 901,551 votes (6.0%). This was the most impressive showing of any socialist candidate in the history of the United States. In some states the vote was much higher: Oklahoma (16.6), Nevada (16.5), Montana (13.6), Washington (12.9), California (12.2) and Idaho (11.5).

Eugene Debs had developed a very strong following in America. The journalist, Max Eastman, wrote: "Debs was a poet, and more gifted of poetry in private speech than in public oratory. He was the sweetest strong man I ever saw. There is both fighting and love in American socialism, and Debs knew how to fight. But that was not his genius. His genius was for love, the ancient real love, the miracle love that really identifies itself with the needs and wishes of others. That gave him more power than was possessed by many who were better versed in the subtleties of politics and oratory."

The party contained both moderate and radical socialists. Eventually, in 1912 Victor Berger and Morris Hillquit, the leaders of the right-wing, gained control and expelled the left-wing led by Bill Haywood.

On the outbreak of the First World War most socialists in the United States were opposed to the conflict. They argued 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.

In an article in September 1915 Eugene Debs wrote: "I am not opposed to all war, nor am I opposed to fighting under all circumstances, and any declaration to the contrary would disqualify me as a revolutionist. When I say I am opposed to war I mean ruling class war, for the ruling class is the only class that makes war. It matters not to me whether this war be offensive or defensive, or what other lying excuse may be invented for it, I am opposed to it, and I would be shot for treason before I would enter such a war."

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. The Call was also prosecuted but the Appeal to Reason decided to support the war effort to remain in business.

Most members of the Socialist Party agreed with Eugene Debs but there was a small minority, including William Walling, John Spargo and Upton Sinclair, who wanted the USA to join the Allies against the Central Powers. When the pro-war section were defeated at a special conference all three resigned from the party.

During the First World War several Socialist Party members, including Kate Richards O'Hare, Victor Berger and Rose Pastor Stokes were imprisoned for their anti-war activities. After making a speech in Canton, Ohio, on 16th June, 1918, criticizing the legislation, Eugene Debs was arrested and sentenced to ten years in Atlanta Penitentiary.

People working for The Masses were also prosecuted and the magazine was forced to close. In 1918 the same people who produced the journal went on the publish The Liberator. The journal published information about socialist movements throughout the world and was the first to break the news that the Allies had invaded Russia.

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.

In January 1919 the Socialist Party of America had 104,000 members. The right-wing leadership of the party opposed the Russian Revolution. On 24th May 1919 the leadership expelled 20,000 members who supported the Soviet government. The process continued and by the beginning of July two-thirds of the party had been suspended or expelled.

Some of these people, including John Reed, William Z. Foster, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Ella Reeve Bloor, Claude McKay, Michael Gold and Robert Minor, decided to form the American Communist Party. By August 1919 it had 60,000 members whereas the Socialist Party of America had only 40,000.

The growth of the left worried Woodrow Wilson and his administration and America entered what became known as the Red Scare period. On 7th November, 1919, the second anniversary of the revolution, Alexander Mitchell Palmer, Wilson's attorney general, ordered the arrest of over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists. These people were charged with "advocating force, violence and unlawful means to overthrow the Government".

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.

Eugene Debs was still in prison when he was the Socialist Party candidate in the 1920 Presidential Election. 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. With his running-mate, Seymour Stedman, they received 919,799 votes.

Lincoln Steffens was one of his visitors: "Debs was a happy man in prison. He loved everybody there, and everybody loved him - warden, guards, and convicts. Debs wanted to hear all about the Russian Revolution, the outrages of which he had denounced. It was not socialist, he pleaded, just as Emma Goldman declared it was not an anarchist revolution. Like so many reds who rejected Bolshevism, Debs the socialist could not abide the violence, bloodshed and tyranny."

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 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.

Under the leadership of Michael Harrington, the Socialist Party Conference in 1968 passed a resolution endorsing Hubert Humphrey for president. In 1972 the party supported George McGovern.

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), Sonia Johnson (1984), Willa Kenoyer (1988), John Quinn Brisben (1992), Mary Cal Hollis (1996), David McReynolds (2000), Walt Brown (2004) and Brian Moore (2008)

Primary Sources

(1) Agnes Smedley, she joined the Socialist Party in 1916. She wrote about her experiences in her book, Daughters of the Earth (1929)

About me at that time (1916) were small Socialist groups who knew little more than I did. We often met in a little dark room to discuss the war and to study various problems and Socialist ideas. The room was over a pool room and led into a larger square room with a splintery floor; in the, corner stood a sad looking piano. In the little hall leading to it was a rack holding various Socialist or radical newspapers, tracts, and pamphlets in very small print and on very bad paper. The subjects treated were technical Marxist theories. Now and then some Party member would announce a study circle, and I would join it, along with some ten or twelve working men and women.

I joined another circle and the leader gave us a little leaflet in very small print, asking us to read it carefully and then come prepared to ask questions. It was a technical Marxist subject and I did not understand it nor did I know what questions to ask.

Once or twice a month our Socialist local would announce a dance and try to draw young workers into it. Twenty or thirty of us would gather in the square, dingy room with splintery floor. The Socialist lawyer of the city came, with his wife and daughter. They were very intelligent and kindly people upon whose shoulders most of the Socialist work in town rested. The wife had baked a cake for the occasion and her daughter, a student, played a cornet. While the piano rattled away and the cornet blared, we circled about the room, trying to be gay.

(2) Socialist Party leaflet, The Gold Brick Twins (1916)

The Democratic platform does not differ from the Republican platform fundamentally at all. Of course, the Democratic convention was held a week later than the Republican, and this gave the Democrats a chance to see what the Republicans had done. Naturally they decided to go the Republicans one better in bidding for the labor vote. Like the Republican Party, the Democratic Party stands for the interests of the capitalist class, and it will do just as little for the working class as it can and get by. The labor planks were frightened out of the Democratic Party by the rising Socialist vote. Therefore the Socialist Party, not the Democratic Party, is entitled to the credit for them.

They also straddle the suffrage question, leaving it to the states. Like the Republicans, they dodged this issue altogether until it became popular.

These scanty labor and suffrage planks are minor matters to the Democratic Party. Their purpose is merely to catch votes.

The great body of the platform is devoted to boasting about the alleged achievements of the Democratic administration, and boosting for nationalism, so-called preparedness, and foreign markets.

The platform says that the life, health, and strength of the men, women, and children of the nation are its greatest asset.

This is true.

If the platform stood for principles which would give the utmost life, health, and strength to the men, women, and children of the nation, it would be all right.

But it does not.

On the contrary, after boasting about the achievements of the administration - of which all the good ones were frightened

out of it by the rising Socialist vote - they proceed to say that they must now remove, as far as possible, every remaining element of unrest and uncertainty from the path of the business of America and secure for them a continued period of quiet, assured, and confident prosperity.

Do you get that?

If the Democratic Party had ever been anything else than a political representative of capitalism, one could say that this plank is a complete surrender to the capitalist class. But how can a party surrender to those who already own and control it?

This plank merely shows distinctly who does own and control the party. It shows that the party is body and soul the property of the capitalist class. It stands for the continuation of capitalism, with its long and hideous train of woes.

In order to abolish evils, it is entirely necessary to cause unrest and uncertainty among the big businessmen who profit by the continuance of these evils.

But the Democratic Party says we must not disturb their serenity. In other words, it stands for the continuation of the great existing social evils.

The Republican and Democratic platforms are more remarkable for what they do not say than for what they do say.

The Republicans and Democrats are fully aware of the fact that hundreds of Americans die of starvation each year. They know that millions of Americans are underfed all the time. They know that hundreds of thousands of Americans are compelled to accept degrading charity. They know that every little while millions of Americans tramp the streets in a vain attempt to find an opportunity to earn a living. They know that thousands of Americans are killed and hundreds of thousands injured by preventable accidents. They know that thousands of Americans are driven to suicide. They know that thousands of Americans are driven to insanity. They know that hundreds of thousands of Americans are driven to crime. They know that hundreds of thousands of American women and girls are driven to prostitution. They know that the masses of the American people are in poverty. They know that the masses of the people are compelled to starve themselves mentally, morally, and spiritually in order to keep from starving physically. They know that the private ownership of the industries enables a comparatively few capitalists to get for themselves the bulk of the earnings of the rest of the people.

(3) Upton Sinclair, letter of resignation from the Socialist Party (September, 1917)

I have lived in Germany and know its language and literature, and the spirit and ideals of its rulers. Having given many years to a study of American capitalism. I am not blind to the defects of my own country; but, in spite of these defects, I assert that the difference between the ruling class of Germany and that of America is the difference between the seventeenth century and the twentieth.

No question can be settled by force, my pacifist friends all say. And this in a country in which a civil war was fought and the question of slavery and secession settled! I can speak with especial certainty of this question, because all my ancestors were Southerners and fought on the rebel side; I myself am living testimony to the fact that force can and does settle questions - when it is used with intelligence.

In the same way I say if Germany be allowed to win this war - then we in America shall have to drop every other activity and devote the next twenty or thirty years to preparing for a last-ditch defence of the democratic principle.

(4) Upton Sinclair, letter to John Reed (22nd October, 1918)

American capitalism is predatory, and American politics are corrupt: The same thing is true in England and the same in France; but in all these three countries the dominating fact is that whatever the people get ready to change the government, they can change it. The same thing is not true of Germany, and until it was made true in Germany, there could be no free political democracy anywhere else in the world - to say nothing of any free social democracy. My revolutionary friends who will not recognize this fact seem to me like a bunch of musicians sitting down to play a symphony concert in a forest where there is a man-eating tiger lose. For my part, much as I enjoy symphony concerts, I want to put my fiddle away in its case and get a rifle and go out and settle with the tiger.

(5) John Reed letter to Upton Sinclair (25th October, 1918)

You are simply a theoretician, Upton, there is only one tiger in the forest. To me there is a whole flock of tigers - the tiger who eats me and the tigers who eat other people. These tigers are fighting, and whichever side wins, I get eaten just the same. Under the circumstances it is a bit heartless to imagine any of us, at any time, playing symphony concerts. I have been around a bit and I have yet to see the world's working-class playing symphony-concerts - but I hope to see them, sitting on the carcasses of those tigers.

(6) Upton Sinclair, letter to Norman Thomas (25th September, 1951)

The American People will take Socialism, but they won't take the label. I certainly proved it in the case of EPIC. Running on the Socialist ticket I got 60,000 votes, and running on the slogan to "End Poverty in California" I got 879,000. I think we simply have to recognize the fact that our enemies have succeeded in spreading the Big Lie. There is no use attacking it by a front attack, it is much better to out-flank them.