Socialist Party of America

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1904 election poster

The Socialist Party of America began in 1904 with the merger of the Social Democratic Party and the Social Labor Party. The party contained both moderate and radical socialists. At its peak in 1912, it claimed 118,000 members. Unlike Europe, where socialist parties were controlled by labor unions, most American labor unions opposed the party because of its radicalism and hostility to religion. The party was weak after 1932 and finally split apart in the early 1970s.


The SPA was founded by Eugene V. Debs, Victor Berger, Frederic Heath, and Seymour Stedman.

Debs era

Socialist Party

The Socialist Party was a diverse coalition of local parties based in industrial cities, and usually was rooted in ethnic communities, especially German, Jewish and Finnish. By 1912 they claimed more than a thousand locally elected officials in 33 states and 160 cities, especially the Midwest. Eugene V. Debs ran for president in 1900, 1904 and 1908 primarily to encourage the local effort, and he did so again in 1912 and 1920. His best showing was 6% in 1912. The party was factionalized. The conservatives, led by Victor Berger of Milwaukee who promoted progressive causes of efficiency and an end to corruption. The radicals wanted to overthrow capitalism, tried to infiltrate labor unions, and sought to cooperate with the IWW. With few exceptions the party had weak or nonexistent links to local labor unions.

Immigration was an issue—the radicals saw immigrants as fodder for the war with capitalism, while conservatives complained they lowered wage rates and absorbed too many city resources. Many of these issues were heatedly debated at the First National Congress of the Socialist Party in 1910, and the national convention in Indianapolis in 1912. At the latter the radicals won an early test by seating Bill Haywood on the Executive Committee, by sending encouragement to western "Wobblies" (IWW) and by a resolution seeming to favor industrial unionism. The conservatives counterattacked by amending the party constitution to expel any socialists who favored industrial sabotage or syndicalism (that is, the IWW), and who refused to participate in American elections. They adopted a conservative platform calling for cooperative organization of prisons, a national bureau of health, abolition of the Senate and the presidential veto, and a long list of progressive reforms that the Democratic party was known for.

Debs did not attend—he saw his mission as keeping the disparate units together in the hope that someday a common goal would be found. There was little money—his campaign cost only $66,000, mostly for 3.5 million leaflets and travel to rallies organized by local groups. Debs criss-crossed the country, His biggest event was a speech to 15,000 in New York City. The crowd sang the "Marseillaise," and "International" as Emil Seidel, the vice-presidential candidate, boasted, "Only a year ago workingmen were throwing decayed vegetables and rotten eggs at us but now all is changed....Eggs are too high. There is a great giant growing up in this country that will someday take over the affairs of this nation. He is a little giant now but he is growing fast. The name of this little giant is socialism." Debs said that only the socialists represented labor; he condemned "Injunction Bill Taft"; ridiculed Roosevelt as "a charlatan, mountebank, and fraud, and his Progressive promises and pledges as the mouthings of a low and utterly unprincipled self seeker and demagogue." Debs insisted that the Democrats, Progressives and Republicans alike were financed by the trusts. Party newspapers spread the word


Throughout its existence, the party had very little party unity. Its members' political stances took wide ranges of views from small social reform to Marxist Utopianism. Its most prominent candidate (and founder), Eugene V. Debs, ran for president in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920. In 1912 he received 897,011 votes.[1] He ran on the notion of a "Cooperative Commonwealth."[2]

The party had limited support. For many years it controlled the mayoralty in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, where it stressed efficiency, absence of corruption, and municipal ownership of the water supply.

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, a majority in the party aggressively opposed America's entrance into the war. They claimed that the cause of the war was the "imperialist competitive society." Through these actions, the party lost much popular support, but gained strength among antiwar German Americans. Socialists held protests against the war, and tried to stop young men from registering for the draft. leaders, including Debs, were tried, convicted and imprisoned under the Espionage Act. Many socialists, including writer Walter Lippmann, supported the war and broke permanently with the movement.

Downfall and Dissolution

Due to the varied political views of members of the party, there was a schism during the Russian Revolution in 1917-18. The right-wing members condemned the Revolution, and expelled over 20,000 members who were sympathetic with the Bolsheviks (Communists).

In the 1930s Franklin D. Roosevelt destroyed the party. He refused to enact any of its programs or appoint any of its leaders. In New York City many ex-Socialists dropped the party and formed the new American Labor Party, independent of both the Socialist Party and the Democratic party, in order to fully support Roosevelt. Norman Thomas ran repeatedly for president on the Socialist ticket, winning less than 2% of the vote each time. By 1950 the party's membership dropped to 2,000.


A minority faction Socialist Party USA, came into being in 1973. It remains a small fringe operation, winning fewer than 10,000 in recent presidential elections.

See also


  • Chace, James. 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs--The Election that Changed the Country (2005), popular history excerpts and text search
  • Ginger, Ray. The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs. (1949)
  • Hyfler, Robert. Prophets of the Left: American Socialist Thought in the Twentieth Century (1984) 192 pp. online edition
  • Quint, Howard. The Forging of American Socialism: Origins of the Modern Movement. (1964) 412pp; standard scholarly history online edition
  • Radosh, Ronald (ed). Great Lives Observed: Debs. (1971). essays and primary sources
  • Salvatore, Nick. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. (1984), the standard scholarly biography.
  • Shannon, David A. The Socialist Party of America. (1967), a standard scholarly history.
  • Shannon, David A. "The Socialist Party Before the First World War: An Analysis," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Sep., 1951), pp. 279–288 in JSTOR
  • Swanberg W. A. Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist (1976)

External links

Notes and References

  1. Spartacus: Socialist Party of America
  2. The constitution of the party can be found here

External links