- History of the socialist movement in the United States
Socialismas an organized political movement in the United Statesbegan with utopian communities in the early 19th centuryand later became closely tied to the Socialist Labor Party (founded in 1876) and the Socialist Party of America(formed in 1901). Influenced by revolutionary European thinking and gaining momentum from distraught workers and oppressed minorities, the Socialist Party managed to successfully run hundreds of candidates for various positions around the nation for several decades. However, it faced severe government repression and eventually broke apart and declined in the 1920s. The Socialist Labor Party never attracted the numbers the reformist Socialist Party did in the early decades of the 20th century, but the SLP continues to exist today.
Utopian socialismwas the US's first Socialist movement. Utopians attempted to develop model socialist societies to demonstrate the virtues of their brand of beliefs. Most Utopian socialist ideas originated in Europe, but the US was most often the site for the experiments themselves. Many Utopian experiments occurred in the 19th century as part of this movement, including:
* The Icarians
* Bishop Hill Commune
Cedar Vale Community
Social Freedom Community
Anaheim Colony Robert Owenwas a wealthy, Welsh industrialist who turned to social reform and socialism. In 1825 he founded a communitarian colony called New Harmony in western Indiana. The group fell apart in 1829, mostly due to conflict between Utopian ideologues and non-ideological pioneers.
Transcendentalist Utopians founded
Brook Farmin 1841. The community was founded on Frenchman Charles Fourier's brand of socialism. Both Nathaniel Hawthorneand Ralph Waldo Emersonwere members of the short-lived community. The group had trouble reaching financial stability, and many members left as their leader, George Ripleyturned more and more to Fourier's doctrine. All hope for its survival was lost when the Fourier-inspired and expensive main building burnt down while under construction. The community dissolved in 1847.
Fourierists also attempted to establish a community in Monmouth County,
New Jersey. The North American Phalanxcommunity built a Phalanstère, Fouriers concept of a communal living structure, out of two farmhouses and an addition that linked the two. The community lasted from 1844 to 1856, when a fire destroyed the community's flour and saw mills and several workshops. The community had already begun to decline after an ideological schism in 1853.
Another French socialist,
Étienne Cabet, had American followers who attempted to establish a community in Nauvoo, Illinoisafter the Mormonsleft the city.
Early American Socialism and its leaders
The Socialist Labor Party was officially founded in 1876 at a convention in
Newark, New Jersey. The party was made up overwhelmingly of German immigrants, who had brought Marxist ideals with them to North America. So strong was the heritage, that the official party language was German for the first three years. The party was a hodgepodge of various socialist philosophies in its nascent years, and was all too often being torn apart by a lack of intellectual direction. When the SLP reorganised as a Marxist party in 1890, their philosophy became solidified and their influence quickly grew, and by the turn of the century the SLP was the foremost American socialist party.
American Socialism was based on an ideology known today as "
democratic socialism." The eventual goal of the movement was to give control of the means of productionto the working class, and, in particular, to transfer ownership of major industries to their respective employees, relinquishing "capital to those who create it." Democratic socialists wish to achieve their goals by winning elections (rather than organizing a revolutionor a general strike, as other socialists wish to do). Thus the Socialist Party strongly advocated universal suffrage, in order to politically empower the [oppressed] working class, or " proletariat."
The Socialist Party’s early approach to politics was similar to that of a reformist politician named
Ferdinand Lassalle. He traveled Germany giving speeches, writing pamphlets, and negotiating with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s government in the mid-1800s. But, both Karl Marxand Friedrich Engelsdisagreed with Lassalle’s stance on several issues, and they claimed that he was not “a true Communist:” they opposed "revisionist" politics in favor of revolutionary tactics. Because the majority of Socialists in America were German Marxists, this also made Lassalle unpopular in the States.
Bringing to light the resemblance of the American party’s politics to those of Lassalle,
Daniel De Leonemerged as an early leader of the Socialist Labor Party. He was also an adamant supporter of unions, but critical of the collective bargainingmovement within America at the time, favoring a slightly different approach. [The difference between De Leon’s ideal union situation and the one being practiced at the time is minute and necessitates a comparison between Anarcho-Syndicalismand DeLeonism. This complex economic discussion is outside the scope of this article] The resulting disagreement between De Leon’s supporters and detractors within the party led to an early schism. De Leon's opponents, led by Morris Hillquit, left the Socialist Labor Party in 1901 and fused with Eugene V. Debs's Social Democratic Party and formed the Socialist Party of America.
Eugene V. Debs, as the new leader of the Socialist movement, quickly gained national recognition as a charismatic orator. He was often inflammatory and controversial, but also strikingly modest and inspiring. He once said, "I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else… You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition." Debs lent a great and powerful air to the revolution with his speaking. “There was almost a religious fervor to the movement, as in the eloquence of Debs". [Zinn, 1980, p. 333.]
The Socialist movement became coherent and energized under Debs. It included "scores of former Populists, militant miners, and blacklisted railroad workers, who were… inspired by occasional visits from national figures like Eugene V. Debs". [Zinn, 1980, p. 332.]
Socialism's ties to Labor
The Party formed strong alliances with a number of labor organizations, because of their similar goals. In an attempt to rebel against the abuses of corporations, workers had found a solution–or so they thought–in a technique known as collective bargaining. By banding together into "unions" and refusing to work, or “striking,” workers would halt production at a plant or in a mine, forcing management to meet their demands. From Daniel De Leon’s early proposal to organize unions with a Socialist purpose, the two movements became closely tied. One major ideal they had in common was the spirit of collectivism: both in the Socialist platform and in the idea of collective bargaining.
The most prominent unions of the time were the
American Federation of Labor, the Knights of Labor, and the Industrial Workers of the World. Uriah S. Stephens founded the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor around secrecy and a semireligious aura to "create a sense of solidarity". [Tindall et al, 1984, p. 827.] The Knights was, in essence, “one big union of all workers. [Tindall et al, 1984, p. 828.] In 1886, a convention of delegates from twenty separate unions formed the American Federation of Labor, with Samuel Gompers as its head. It peaked at 4 million members. The Industrial Workers of the World (or "Wobblies") was formed along the same lines as the Knights, to become one big union. The IWW found early supporters in De Leon and Debs.
The Socialist movement was able to gain strength from its ties to labor. "The [economic] panic of 1907, as well as the growing strength of the Socialists, Wobblies, and trade unions, speeded up the process of reform." [Zinn, 1980, p. 342.] However, corporations sought to protect their profits, and took steps against unions and strikers. They hired strikebreakers and pressured the government to call in the national
militiawhen workers refused to do their jobs. A number of strikes dissolved into violent confrontations.
In May 1886, the Knights of Labor were demonstrating in the
Haymarket Squarein Chicago, demanding an eight-hour dayin all trades. When police arrived, an unknown person threw a bomb into the crowd, killing one person and injuring several others. “In a trial marked by prejudice and hysteria,” seven anarchists, six of them German speaking, were sentenced to death with no evidence linking them to the bomb. [Tindall and Shi, 1984, p. 829.]
In early 1894, a dispute broke out between
George Pullmanand his employees. Debs, then-leader of the American Railway Union, organized a strike. United States Attorney General Olney and President Grover Clevelandtook the matter to court and were granted several injunctions preventing railroad workers from “interfering with interstate commerce and the mails”.Dubofsky, 1994, p. 29.] The judiciary of the time denied the legitimacy of strikers. Said one judge, " [neither] the weapon of the insurrectionist, nor the inflamed tongue of him who incites fire and sword is the instrument to bring about reforms". This was the first sign of a clash between the government and Socialist ideals.
In 1914, one of the worst labor conflicts in American history took place at a mining colony in Colorado called Ludlow. After workers struck with grievances ranging from requests for an eight-hour day to allegations of subjugation, the National Guard was called in by Colorado governor
Elias Ammons. That winter, Guardsmen made 172 arrests. [As the conflict dragged on, the state of Colorado was unable to pay the salaries of many National Guardsmen. As enlisted men dropped out, mine guards took their places, their uniforms, and their weapons] Kick et al, 2002, p. 263.]
The strikers began to fight back, killing four mine guards and firing into a separate camp where strikebreakers lived. When body of a strikebreaker was found nearby, the National Guard’s General Chase ordered the tent colony destroyed in retaliation.
"On Monday morning, April 20, two dynamite bombs were exploded, in the hills above Ludlow... a signal for operations to begin. At 9 AM a machine gun began firing into the tents [where strikers were living] , and then others joined." One eyewitness reported, “The soldiers and mine guards tried to kill everybody; anything they saw move". That night, the National Guard rode down from the hills surrounding Ludlow and set fire to the tents. Twenty-six people, including two women and eleven children, were killed. [Kick et al, 2002, p. 264.]
Union members were now afraid to strike. The military, which saw strikers as dangerous insurgents, intimidated and threatened them. This compounded with a public backlash against anarchists and radicals. As public opinion of strikes and unions was soured, the Socialists often appeared guilty by association. They were lumped together with strikers and
anarchists under a blanket of public distrust.
Aside from the military, the Socialists would meet harsh political opposition as well when exercising their
First Amendmentright. On April 7, 1917, the day after the United Statesentered World War I, an emergency convention of the Socialist party was held in St. Louis. They declared the war “a crime against the people of the United States" [Zinn, 1980, p. 355.] and began holding anti-war rallies. Socialist anti-draft demonstrations drew as many as 20,000.Zinn, 1980, p. 356.]
In June 1917, President
Woodrow Wilsonsigned into law the Espionage Act, [This Act is still on the books today and has been repeatedly used in peacetime. Officially, since the Korean Warin the 1950s, the United States has been in a constant “ state of emergency. Zinn, 1980, p. 356.] which included a clause providing prison sentences for up to twenty years for “Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty… or willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment of service of the United States”. The Socialists, with their talk of draft dodging and war-opposition, found themselves the target of persecution. Scores were convicted of treason and jailed.
After visiting three Socialists imprisoned in
Canton, Ohio, Eugene V. Debs crossed the street and made a two-hour speech to a crowd in which he condemned the war. "Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder… The master class has always declared the war and the subject class has always fought the battles," Debs told the crowd. [Zinn, 1980, 358.]
He was immediately arrested and soon convicted under the Espionage Act. During his trial, he did not take the stand, nor call a witness in his defense. However, before the trial began, and after his sentencing, he made speeches to the jury: "I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. Gentlemen, I abhor war… I have sympathy with the suffering, struggling people everywhere…" He also uttered what would become his most famous words: "While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison, [Debs served 32 months of his sentence until President Warren G. Harding pardoned him.] stripped of his citizenship, and disenfranchised for life.
During the war, the Socialists were wracked by assaults on their right to free speech. "The patriotic fervor of war [was] invoked. The courts and jails [were] used to reinforce the idea that certain ideas, certain kinds of resistance, could not be tolerated". [Zinn, 1980, p. 367.]
The government crackdown on dissenting radicalism paralleled public outrage towards opponents of the war. Several groups were formed on the local and national levels to silence dissent. The
American Vigilante Patrol, a subdivision of the American Defense Society, was formed with the purpose “to put an end to seditious street oratory".Zinn, 1980, p. 360.] The United States Department of Justicesponsored an organization known as the American Protective League, which kept track of cases of “disloyalty.” It eventually claimed it had found 3,000,000 such cases. "Even if these figures are exaggerated, the very size and scope of the League gives a clue to the amount of ‘disloyalty'."
The press was also instrumental in spreading feelings of hatred against dissenters:
Two steps back, one forward
Meanwhile, corporations pressured the government to deal with strikes and other disruptions from disgruntled workers. The government felt especially pressured to keep war-related industries running. "As worker discontent and strikes… intensified in the summer of 1917, demands grew for prompt federal action… The anti-labor forces concentrated their venom on the IWW."Dubofsky, 1994, p. 67.] Soon, “the halls of Congress rang with denunciations of the IWW" and the government sided with industry; "federal attorneys viewed strikes not as the behavior of discontented workers but as the outcome of subversive and even German influences".
September 5, 1917, at the request of President Wilson, the Justice Department conducted a raid on the Industrial Workers of the World. They stormed every one of the 48 IWW headquarters in the country. "By month’s end, a federal grand jury had indicted nearly two hundred IWW leaders on charges of sedition and espionage" under the Espionage Act. [Dubofsky, 1994, p. 69.] Their sentences ranged from a few months to ten years in prison. An ally of the Socialist party had been practically destroyed.
However, Wilson did recognize a problem with the state of labor in America. In 1918, he created the
National War Labor Boardin an attempt to reform labor practices. The Board included an equal number of members from labor and business, and members of the AFL. The Board was able to “institute the eight-hour day in many industries… to raise wages for transit workers… [and] to demand equal pay for women…" [Dubofsky, 1994, p. 73.] It also required employers to bargain collectively, effectively making unions legal. The Socialist movement, for the first time, saw justice being done in the mitigation of the plight of the worker.
Internal strife and public prejudice
But the next year, internal strife would cause a schism. After
Vladimir Lenin’s successful revolution in Russia, he invited the Socialist Party to join the Communist Third International. The debate over whether to align with Lenin caused a major rift in the party. A referendum to join Lenin’s "Comintern" passed with 90% approval, but the moderates who were in charge of the Party expelled the extreme leftists before this could take place. The expelled members formed the Communist Labor Partyand the Communist Party of America. The Socialist Party ended up, with only moderates left, at one third of its original size.
In addition, a wave of prejudice swept the country after the war. The nation indulged in anti-immigrant and anti-Communist sentiment. “After the
Russian Revolution of 1917, America’s ruling class became almost obsessed with Communism."Axelrod and Philips, 1992, p. 254.] This was known as the first Red Scare. [This is also known as the " Palmer Raids". Senator Joseph McCarthy, directly following the Second World War, orchestrated the second, more famous Red Scare. It found the same targets in Communists and foreigners.] Anarchists had sent a number of mail-bombs to prominent businessmen and government leaders. However, “Little distinction was made between working-class Communists and the suspected anarchists."
Attorney General Palmer, after he himself received a bomb in the mail, set out to stop the “Communist conspiracy” that he believed was operating inside the United States. “Foreigners and labor unions were his prime targets."Axelrod et al, 1992, p. 256.] He created a secret organization, the
General Intelligence Division, led by J. Edgar Hoover. [At this time, J. Edgar Hoover was working as Palmer’s special assistant in the Justice Department.] Hoover soon amassed a card-catalogue system with information on 150,000 individuals and 60,000 groups and publications. Palmer and Hoover both published press releases and circulated anti-Communist propaganda. Then, on January 2, 1920, the Palmer Raids began.
Manhattan, the target was the Russian People’s House, where 183 men were initially arrested… The arrests were particularly brutal. Some people were hurled down the stairs of the Russian People’s House. Others were beaten. Drunk with the success of the raid, Palmer went to Congress a week later to ask that a peacetime sedition act be passed... [Congress] cheered Palmer in the halls of the Capitol.
On that single day in 1920, Palmer’s agents rounded up 6,000 people. In the subsequent trials, the Labor Department ruled that mere "membership in a Communist organization was sufficient ground for the deportation of aliens". However, it later ruled that the incarcerations and deportations were illegal, ["Since the
Communist Labor Partyaccepted the possibility of change through Parliamentary action, it could not be considered an advocate of violent revolution". Axelrod et al, 1992, p. 256.] halting Palmer’s raids
The Red Scare was over, but Americans' xenophobia remained.
:Americans feared that the millions of new immigrants would take jobs from the native-born. America’s capitalists had long been blaming the labor unrest of previous decades on radical dissidents among the immigrants… Americans seemed willing to transform their war-time fear of Germans to a post-war fear of the... immigrant industrial worker. [Axelrod et al, 1992, pg. 265.]
Congress soon passed the
Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, heavily restricting immigration from [typically Communist] eastern and southern Europe.
The decline of popular socialism
"When the twenties began… the IWW was destroyed, the Socialist party falling apart. The strikes were beaten down by force, and the economy was doing just well enough for just enough people to prevent mass rebellion". [Zinn, 1980, p. 373.] Thus the decline of the Socialist movement during the early
20th centurywas the result of a number of constrictions and attacks from several directions:
The Socialists had lost a major ally in the Wobblies, and their free speech had been restricted, if not denied. Immigrants, a major base of the Socialist movement, were discriminated against and looked down upon. Eugene V. Debs—the charismatic leader of the Socialists—was in prison, along with hundreds of fellow dissenters. Wilson’s National War Labor Board and a number of legislative acts had ameliorated the plight of the workers. [By the turn of the century, the states had passed over 1,600 acts relating to working conditions. Tindall et al, 1984, p. 888.] Now, the Socialists were regarded as being "unnecessary", the “lunatic fringe,” and a group of untrustworthy radicals. The public, the courts, and Congress exhibited prejudice against them. After crippling schisms within the party and a change in public opinion due to the Palmer Raids and the press, the Socialist party found itself unable to gather popular support.
The Party would reach its peak in 1912. At one time, it boasted 33 city mayors, many seats in state legislatures, and two members of the US House of Representatives. [Tindall et al, 1984, p. 838.] When running for President in 1912, Eugene V. Debs won 6% of the popular vote. But since then socialists have not even mustered 4%. [The
Socialist Party USA's 2004 Presidential candidate, Walt Brown, received only 10,837 votes (.009%), compared to Debs’ 900,369 (6%) in 1912.]
Eugene V. Debs
Socialist Party of America
* U.S. presidential election, 1912
Upton Sinclair, Socialist writer
* Nordhoff, Charles. (1875). "THE COMMUNISTIC SOCIETIES OF THE UNITED STATES: From Personal Visit and Observation." Harper & Brothers, Publishers (Reprinted edition 1966) Dover Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-486-21580-6. LICN 66-11429
* Axelrod, Alan and Philips, Charles. (1992). "What every American should know about American history." (Reprinted ed.) Rob Adams Inc. Publishers.
* Dubofsky, Melvyn. (1994). "The state and labor in modern America." University of North Carolina Press.
* Kick, Russ (editor). (2002). "Everything you know is wrong." New York: The Disinformation Company.
* Tindall, George Brown and Shi, David E. (1984). "America: a Narrative History." (Six ed., in two volumes). W. W. Norton and Company.
* Zinn, Howard (1980). "A People's History of the United States." Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-014803-9
* [http://www.marxists.org/history/usa/eam/index.html Early Marxists in North America (Marxist Internet Archive)]
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