100 Years of the American Socialist Party
1901 - 2001
1901 - 2001
Justice, paper of Socialist Alternative, USA – CWI
Issue No. 25 July-August 2001 By Greg Beiter
2001 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Socialist Party. Overlooked by official history, this party anticipated the formation of a mass workers' party in the United States. At its peak in 1912, members of the Socialist Party were the mayors of Milwaukee, Berkeley and Schenectady, NY. One party publication, The Appeal to Reason, had over 600,000 subscriptions. Numerous party members were state legislators. Eugene Debs had received over 900,000 votes running as the party's candidate for President.
In the decades before the formation of the Socialist Party, the character of US capitalism was much different than it is today. US workers were exploited in a much more naked and obvious fashion. In 1892, the average worker in the manufacturing industries labored from 54 to 63 hours per week and earned a meagre $406 a year. Depressions typically occurred every 10 years, leaving hundreds of thousands without jobs. Trusts were forming in every major industry. Small businesses everywhere were being destroyed by larger competitors. Hundreds of thousands of small farmers were driven from their land by agribusinesses' expansion into the Southwest.
Eugene Debs, one of the chief architects of the Socialist Party, rose to fame through the organization of the first industry-wide railroad union, The American Railway Union (ARU). In 1894, Debs and the ARU led a countrywide strike and boycott of The Pullman Palace Car Company. The strike paralyzed the rails nationwide. President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to break the strike and prevent lost profits for the railroad magnates. The intervention of federal troops made it clear to Debs and millions of workers which side of the class struggle the government was on.
After the Pullman strike, Debs was jailed for violating an injunction issued against the strikers. His role in the strike and subsequent imprisonment had made him a national celebrity. During his four-month stint in jail, Debs became acquainted with the ideas of socialism. The strike proved to him that the interests of workers and big business owners fundamentally contradicted one another. Shortly after his release, Debs publicly declared himself a socialist.
Debs and many former ARU members played a key role in the formation of the Socialist Party. Throughout its history, the party was composed of numerous political currents. Socialism was still brand new to the majority of workers in the US. Never before had a person or organization been able to relate revolutionary Marxism to the experiences of the US working class. Debs was the first individual to do so, using the vehicle of the Socialist Party.
Debs ran for president on the party ticket three times from 1904-1912. Year after year, Debs hit every state in the union on his speaking tours, reaching workers and farmers alike. Thousands of workers were radicalized as Debs exposed the brutality and injustice inherent in the capitalist system in his speeches.
From its formation until 1912, the Socialist Party grew rapidly. The number of votes that Debs received also expanded greatly during this period. Party membership doubled from 1904 to 1908 and then tripled from 1908 to 1912, peaking at around 120,000. In 1912, there were 323 Socialist Party publications and over 1,000 party members were elected to office in 337 towns and cities, including 56 mayors.
The varied political composition led to heated internal debate, which was essential to determine the overall tactics, strategies and identity of the party. The doctors, lawyers and journalists tended to support the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and craft unionism. This right wing tended to believe that socialism could overtake capitalism by using the party as purely an electoral machine, compromising the party's politics in order to attract middle class and conservative voters.
In the winter of 1912, the left wing of the party, composed primarily of rank and file workers, was strengthened by a successful textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Working closely with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a more militant labor federation, the left wing organized entire factories of unskilled workers and strengthened the party's working class base. Many Socialist Party left-wingers had also been members of the IWW since its formation in 1905, including Bill Haywood, President of the Western Federation of Miners. The factional situation erupted at the party convention in the spring of 1912. The right wing desired to dispense with any radicalism within the party to allow it to appear more legitimate to middle class voters. They managed to pass an amendment condemning the direct action tactics of party members affiliated with the IWW. Haywood, who had been elected to the party's National Executive Committee, was expelled by the right wing shortly after the convention. A large portion of the party's working class base soon left in disgust, disillusioned with the Socialist Party's political direction.
Unfortunately, the left wing never organized into a body capable of fighting the opportunist and careerist elements within the party. Debs never played a leadership role in the party, typically ignoring the factional struggle altogether.
While the Socialist Party was not a mass workers party, it was an important advance in developing the political and class-consciousness of US workers. The party was a step towards the formation of a mass workers party. Through the party mechanisms and Debs' campaigning, workers across the country identified capitalism as the cause of their misery and started to fight for an alternative.
Today, we can build on the experience of the Socialist Party and the subsequent hundred years of class struggle to form our own party of the working class, independent of big business interests and money. For more information on the history of the Socialist Party after 1912 and during World War I, and the formation of the US Communist Party, be sure to check out upcoming issues of Justice.
"I want to see the workers of this nation rise in the might of their intelligence and demand a party of their own, free, eternally free from the paralyzing putridities of the parties of their silk-hatted, wealth-inflated, job-owning and labor exploiting masters." "If you go to the city of Washington... you will find that almost all of those corporate lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress and misrepresentatives of the masses - you will find that all of them claim... that they have risen from the ranks... I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks and not from the ranks.
— Eugene Deb
The Socialist Opposition to World War 1
Part 2 of a series on the history of the US Socialist Party,
Commemorating the 100th anniversary of its founding in 1901
Justice, Issue 27 November-December 2001
For much of the late 19th and
early 20th centuries, the major industrial powers of the world were scrambling
for control of the markets, resources and trade routes of the undeveloped
nations. By 1914 much of the world had been divided up, with each imperial
power having its own spheres of influence. However the rivalries only
increased, resulting in tariff trade wars and massive military build-ups. These
intensifying economic rivalries among the imperialist powers inevitably
propelled them into confrontations, which gave rise to the First World War in
The reformist leaders of the European socialist parties of the Second International (mass workers parties that were originally created by Marxists to fight for the socialist transformation of society) followed the lead of their national ruling classes by supporting the bloodshed of World War I, justifying it as "defense of the fatherland." They departed from their pledges to take a socialist stance of solidarity with the international working class regardless of nationality. In the German Reichstag (parliament), Karl Liebknecht was the only one of 10 deputies of the Social Democratic Party to vote against credits to fund the war. He was subsequently stripped of his seat in the Reichstag, expelled from the party, and jailed for opposing the war. Within the US Socialist Party left wing elements publicly criticized the abandonment of the working class by the leaders of the European socialist parties in leading them off to slaughter. However, the right wing leadership of the SP defended the capitulation of their European counterparts. Ultimately, the party agreed that the cause of the war, as expressed by leading member Eugene Debs, was each nation having the goal of extending "the domination of their exploitation, to increase their capacity for robbery and to multiply their ill-gotten riches."
Despite originally promising to keep America "neutral" in the conflict, by 1917 President Woodrow Wilson began to make clear preparations to enter the war on the side of Britain and France, against Germany. The Socialist Party responded rapidly, publishing an anti-war proclamation entitled "Down With War! Long Live Peace!" The proclamation stated: "Suddenly, with little notice or warning, without the consent of the people and without the consultation with the people's chosen representatives in Congress, we are practically ordered to join in the mad dance of death and destruction..." The idea of a nation-wide general strike in response to any declaration of war to paralyze industry was proposed by Debs and other left-wing activists.
On April 6, 1917, the US declared war on Germany. The following day an emergency convention of the Socialist Party convened in St. Louis to determine the party's position and strategy in relation to the war. At the convention were a handful of pro-war delegates, a minority that expressed a weak opposition to the war, and a majority who opposed the war and desired to work towards its swift end. This majority reaffirmed the Party's allegiance to the principles of internationalism and working class solidarity: "... we brand the declaration of war by our government as a crime against the people of the US and the nations of the world. In all modern history there has been no war more unjustifiable than the war in which we are about to engage." This report was later overwhelmingly ratified by the Party membership.
1917 also saw the passage of the Sedition and Espionage acts by Congress, as a way to criminalize domestic criticism of the war. The Espionage Act made it illegal to "wilfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States." The Sedition Act outlawed the use of seditious language about the form of government as well as oral and written attempts to encourage resistance to the US government. The language of both acts was extremely vague, and that imprecision was used to the advantage of the government in persecuting and jailing anti-war activists of all flavors, both radical and pacifist. These acts violated the First Amendment right of free speech when it came to opposition to the war, which Wilson ironically claimed was being fought "for democracy."
Over the course of September 1917, federal agents and patriotic mobs raided every single hall of the radical trade union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), as well as the Socialist Party's national headquarters in Chicago. As this state sponsored persecution of socialists began, some SP members who had been elected to government positions and who were reformist leadership figures opportunistically drifted towards supporting the war.
The Espionage Act was used to deny many socialist publications circulation within the federal mail system on the basis of their criticism of the war. The Espionage and Sedition Acts were also used to imprison many leading socialists. Black Socialist Party organizers A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen were brought before a federal court for speaking on street corners to other blacks about why they shouldn't fight for the US when it lynched, Jim Crowed, and disenfranchised them. The judge later dismissed the charges against them, claiming that they weren't intelligent enough to author the pamphlets they were distributing, and that white socialists were manipulating them.
By the spring of 1918, four-time Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs gradually came around to publicly denouncing the war. Numerous articles in the corporate press had taken advantage of Debs's earlier silence on the issue, slandering him by claiming that he supported the war. Debs, in a speech at Canton, Ohio, reaffirmed his support for the anti-war position of the party, while speaking out against the persecution of socialists and the IWW. This speech was later used by a grand jury to indict Debs under the Sedition Act. He was speedily convicted and sentenced to a ten-year federal prison term. In 1920, Debs ran one last time for President of the United States on the Socialist Party ticket even though he was locked up in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, and he still received nearly a million votes, which was roughly 6% of the electorate at that time. The state repression of the socialist and anti-war movements shows just how powerful the movements were, and how much the ruling class feared them.
Despite all the repression of the Socialist Party during World War I, the majority of their membership held strong in their opposition to the unjust, capitalist war. During a joint meeting of the party's National Executive Committee and the state societies, a proposal was laid out to reverse the party's resistance to the war. Debs, out on bail during the appeal of his sentence, unexpectedly arrived and spoke in favor of upholding the Party's opposition to the war. The delegates to the meeting decided to uphold the Party's opposition to the war.
Today we find our government entangled in another war. With the recent passage of "anti-terrorist" legislation, persecution of anti-war activists, unions and anyone who doesn't toe their nationalist line is on the horizon. The ruling class will always make up shallow excuses about why the working class should support their insane wars for increased power, prestige and spheres of influence, but these arguments rarely stand up to the test of further scrutiny.
The next article in this series on the history of the Socialist Party will explore the lessons anti-war activists can draw from the socialist struggle against WWI.
For more articles on American Labour History, or on other topics, visit the sitemap for the Socialist Party website.