The Rise and Decline of the Socialist Party in the United States Throughout American history, there have been an array of factions vying for votes in our democratic system of government. These organizations consist of leaders who believe in an idea and have developed ways to achieve that idea. Success of a political organization, or party, is based on how well leaders can convince people to follow them and Join their ranks. Socialism as a political idea is based on cooperative ownership and redistribution of goods, services, and production. The Socialist Party of America was one faction whose roots are based in socialism.
Created in 1901, the SPA was formed by the combination of the Social Democratic Party of America, a short lived movement, and the Social Labor Party, a working man's party. This combination attracted new members, as well as members from the progressive and populist parties, which made up the majority of the SPA. The rise of the Socialist Party of America was fueled by the working mans desire for a utopian society. Campaign promises for public ownership of utilities, better sanitation, and a social security program, at local levels, led to the party's highpoint in 1912.
These small successes were short lived. The American citizens sense of individualism and pride as well as a lack in acquiring news members and support set the wheels of failure in motion. The party's staunch opposition to involvement in World War I and the expulsion of its members led to The Socialist Party's final moment. Faction polarization within the party crippled a once unified front, and finally President Roosevelt's "New Deal" legislation effectively silenced the American Socialist party. The lineage of the Socialist Party of America (SPA) can be traced back to the early 1850s.
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The United States was a bustling nation full of opportunity. Endless new eginnings and freedoms appealed to European citizens who were looking for a better life. Seeking a better life, a boom in 1850 brought 1,713,000 immigrants through Ellis island, bringing along with them their philosophical ideas of socialisml . The failed German revolution of 1848 procured the emigration of Germans to America. Some of these immigrants were the intellectual leaders of the failed revolution, but most were impoverished Germans that lost confidence in their government to provide for them the basic necessities of life.
Along with Germans, Italians, Finns, Jews, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Bohemians and Russians came to America toting their socialist values2. Finns were particularly strong in their socialists ideas. Settling in the Midwest, former Finnish citizens imported a revolutionary perspective of socialism to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan3. Into the 19th century, German immigrants settling in Midwestern cities such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Dayton, Ohio, and St. Louis, Missouri put fourth major inputs and provided body to the growth of socialism in the United States.
Immigrants to the United States were not the only ones seeking change. The philosophy ot socialism in the states was viewed witn no interest by American itizens. This has to do with the character of American culture and our views. American culture has maintained a faith in individualism, economic advancement, and equal opportunity in the marketplace4. In short, Americans put their faith in capitalism. But capitalism does not always deal everyone a fair hand and there are inconsistencies in the market. This led to formation of radical, third party socialist based movements in America's traditional two party political spectrum.
These third parties were viewed as radical because during the 1850's to the 1930's there was an expression of deep distrust towards the expansion and ntervention of states by citizens concerning their private affairs5. Alternatives to socialism were made. The Progressive party's programs of modest state intervention through federal legislative mandate to preserve individual rights, entrepreneurial values, and the fundamental capitalist structure, appealed to many Americans as a moderate alternative to socialism6. The Populist party was one other third party movement the dabbled in socialist ideas.
Running on a platform of government intervention to offset economic troubles and preventing poverty in farming and orking class families ultimately led to the majority of the party consisting of farming and working class families. Many Populists would leave to become socialists7. Out of these movements, a man named Eugene V. Debs would step forward to ignite and unite what would ultimately be known as the Socialist Party of America. Eugene "Gene" Victor Debs Was born in Terre Haute, Indiana on November 5th, 1855 and died October 20th, 1926 in Elmhurst, Illinois at the age of 70 years old.
Debs was one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a founding member of the American Railway Union and a democrat in the Indiana General Assembly. Eugene Debs would leave behind a legacy as being the most well known Socialist in the United States8. In 1894, the American railroad car manufacturer Pullman Company reduced hours and wages but not rents on housing for their workers. This resulted in a strike by the employees who then had Joined Debs's American Railway Union.
The strike was broken up by President Grover Cleveland and Debs was imprisoned for failing to oppose the strike as leader of the ARU9. In prison Debs passed time by reading work written by Karl Marx. Released in 1895, Debs had become a socialist who believed apitalism should be replaced by a new cooperative system. Debs was for advocated radical reform, but was opposed to the revolutionary violence supported by some well known left-wing political movements10. In 1897 Debs Joined Victor Berger to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
The SDP was a short lived socialist movement that ran Eugene Debs as a candidate in the 1900 presidential election. After receiving only . 6% of the votes, the Social Democratic party combined with the even smaller faction, the Socialist Labor Party of Americal 1 creating the Socialist Party of America SPA) in 1901. The newly created SPA attracted members with various ties to socialism. Between the years ot 1 1 to 1912, the party grew trom 1 members to under 1 The demographic locations of theses voters ranged from the East coast to the West coast with the majority of party members being in Midwestern states.
The SPA drew support from Progressives, Populist farmers across the heartland, unions and unionists with the most voting 2 strength coming from immigrants. 13 The socialist Journal Appeal to Reason14, a mixture of articles and extracts from radical socialism based authors such as Karl Marks and Tom Paine, was selling 500,000 copies a week. Thus giving a way to advertise their ideas and party platform. The strength of the SPA was determined by the people who used a vote to cast their voice. Local level victories dotted the map from East to West.
New York state and New Jersey were two states that had consistent SPA voters due to immigrants. The Midwest proved to be where the highest concentration of SPA members resided. Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin were the strong holds made up of German immigrants and Populist farmers. SPA members running as candidates tried to appeal to the working man. Public ownership of utilities, better city sanitation services for the poor, better labor standards and a social security program elected 70 mayors into officel 5. SPA victories at the federal level were small.
Eugene Debs ran as a presidential candidate in every election between 1900 and 1912, and once in 1920. 1900's election was dismal. Debs received only . 6% of the popular vote. In 1904 Debs Ran again and received an increase in votes, 402,810 3% of the popular vote. Voter turnout in the 1908 election was slightly higher, 420,793 votes for Debs. The election of 1912 showed the Socialist Party of Americas highpoint. There was 117,984 members of the SPA, and Eugene Debs got a total of 901 ,551 votes, 6% of the popular vote. This was the most impressive showing of any presidential candidate in any United States election. 6 At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the SPA took a staunch opposition against the war. They were opposed to all international wars but not opposed to class warfare. This opposition to the war caused membership to decline and started conflict within the party itself. In 1919, The left Wing Section of the Socialist party emerged as a faction inside the Socialist Party of America. During an election to elect new board members of the SPA, it was seen that the Left Wing Section of the Socialist party was going to gain the majority of seats.
Those not in the faction decided against this and said that votes were cast in fraudulent manners. These votes were not tallied and the whole election was rejected. On the 24th of 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. These expelled members would soon Join together to for the Communist Party of America. The growth of radicals worried President Cleveland and his administration. America soon entered into the Red Scare.
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. No evidence a revolution was tound but many radicals were still kept in Jaill As a result ot these raids people were afraid to Join leftist radical parties out of fear of being called a communist, which could result in the deportation to Russia. 3 On October 20th 1926, Eugene Debs died and Norman Thomas replaced him as he leader of the Socialist Party of America.
Thomas ran as a presidential candidate in the election preceding his rise to leadership, but the SPA was weak. Thomas did not get as many votes as Debs due to socialist ideas creeping into President Franklin Roosevelt's (FDR) agenda. In response to the great depression, FDR created his "New Deal" to ease burdens on families trying to cope. The 1st new deal, FDR's First 100 days, created programs like the civilian conservation corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Agricultural Adjustment bureau. These programs dabbled in socialist ideals .
The Agricultural Adjustment bureau in particular appealed to Populist-SPA farmers because it was a form of entitlements that helped a struggling farmer. Roosevelt's 2nd New Deal appealed most to SPA members. It called for a Social Security act, the creation ofa labor board and a Fair Labor Standard act. These policies answered what the Socialist Party of America had been trying to push. As a result Norman Thomas urged his supporters to vote Democrat and the Socialist Party of America was turned into no more then a doctrinal sect. The immigration boom in the late 1800s brought Socialism to the United States.
The formation of the Populist and Progressive parties as alternatives to socialism started a movement of Socialist political parties. After converting his views to socialism, Eugene Debs united these small factions into the Socialist Party of America. The party achieved victories among local politics in the states, Midwestern states being a reliable stronghold. After presidential runs by Eugene Debs from 1900 to 1912, the SPA's highpoint came in 1912 with 117,984 members. Internal breakdown caused party members to turn on each other which resulted in member suspension.
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