Socialist Party of America

From Academic Kids

The Socialist Party of America is a socialist political party in the United States. It was formed in 1901 by a merger between the Social Democratic Party of Eugene V. Debs, formed three years earlier by veterans of the Pullman Strike of the American Railway Union, and a wing of the older Socialist Labor Party.

Election poster for , Socialist Party of America candidate for President, 1904
Election poster for Eugene V. Debs, Socialist Party of America candidate for President, 1904

Prominent members

Prominent members included Victor L. Berger, Ella Reeve Bloor, Earl Browder, James Connolly, Eugene V. Debs, James P. Cannon, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, William Z. Foster, Bill Haywood, Morris Hillquit, Helen Keller, Jack London, Theresa S. Malkiel, Mary E. Marcy, Scott Nearing, Kate Richards O'Hare, Mary White Ovington, A. Philip Randolph, John Reed, Victor Reuther, Walter Reuther, Bayard Rustin, Carl Sandburg, Margaret Sanger, Upton Sinclair, Rose Pastor Stokes, Norman Thomas and Frank P. Zeidler.

Early History

From 1901 to the onset of World War I, the Socialist Party was arguably the most successful third party of the twentieth century, with thousands of local elected officials. There were two Socialist members of congress, Meyer London of New York and Victor Berger of Wisconsin; over 70 mayors, and many state legislators and city councilors. Socialist organizations were strongest in the midwestern and plains state, particularly Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

Ideologies of the early participants ranged from more conservative democratic socialists, such as New York party leader Morris Hillquit and Congressman Berger to the radical syndicalists of the Industrial Workers of the World, who eventually left the party in a dispute over the appropriateness of industrial sabotage. The party's ranks were filled with a diverse collection of trade unionists, miners, immigrants and intellectuals.

Opposition to the war reduced its popularity among native Americans, while its best-known member, Debs, was imprisoned on charges of espionage. But by 1919, bouyed by increases in membership in its language federations from areas involved in the Bolshevik Revolution, such as Finland, Russia, Poland and Ukraine, membership topped 100,000.

Expulsion of supporters of Bolshevism

In January 1919, Lenin invited the left wing of the Socialist Party to join in the founding of the Communist Third International, the Comintern. During the spring of 1919, the left wing of the Party prepared to take control. A referendum to join the Comintern passed with 90% support. Elections for the party's National Executive Committee resulted in twelve leftists being elected out of a total of fifteen. Calls were made to expel moderates from the party.

The moderate incumbents struck back by expelling several state organizations, half a dozen language federations, and many locals, in all two thirds of the membership. They then called an emergency convention to be held in Chicago August 30, 1919.

The left wing held a conference in June, 1919 to plan to regain control of the party by bringing delegations from the sections of the party that had been expelled to demand that they be seated. However, the language federations, eventually joined by Charles Ruthenberg and Louis Fraina broke away from that effort and formed their own party, the Communist Party of America, at a separate convention in Chicago on September 2, 1919.

Meanwhile plans led by John Reed and Benjamin Gitlow to crash the Socialist Party convention went ahead. Tipped off, the incumbents called the police, who obligingly expelled the leftists from the hall. The remaining leftist delegates walked out and, meeting with the expelled delegates, formed the Communist Labor Party on September 1, 1919. The two parties eventually merged in 1921 to form the predecessor of the Communist Party USA.

Electoral campaigns

From 1904 to 1912, the Socialist Party ran Eugene Debs for president. The highest showing ever for a Socialist ticket was in 1912, when Debs polled 6% of the popular vote. In 1920, Debs ran again, this time from prison, where he was serving time for oppossing U.S. involvement in World War I.

The Socialist Party did not run a presidential candidate in 1924, but joined the AFL and railroad brotherhoods in support of Progressive Party (Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin. In 1928, the Socialist Party revived as an independent electoral entity under the leadership of Norman Thomas, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Thomas would remain the SPUSA Presidential candidate and leader until after World War II.

A turn to the left

During the 1930s the party experienced growth, particularly among youth, and turned leftwards politically. A left wing caucus, called the Clarity caucus, was formed to argue for more left wing policies. This led to the formation of the Social Democratic Federation by some of the Old Guard, as they were described, who then left the SP. This deepened the turn to the left.

The youth were organised in the Young People's Socialist League. Also in the 1930s, as a result of the left turn taken by the party the small Trotskyist movement then in existence in the U.S. dissolved its organisation, at that point named the Workers Party of America, and joined the Socialists. In a short time they won a great deal of support particularly amongst the youth of the YPSL. At the end of 1938 the Trotskyists left the SP to form their own Socialist Workers Party and Young Peoples Socialist League (Fourth Internationalist).

World War II and McCarthyism

The party's pacifist anti-war stance further weakened it during World War II, and it was further hurt by the anti-Communist drives of the McCarthy era, although the party itself strongly opposed Stalin's Soviet Union. Almost all of the few remaining electoral toeholds of the Socialist party were lost in this period, the last of any substance being the mayoralty of Milwaukee. In the succeeding decades, the party was rent by internal dissent.

The Independent Socialist League

In 1958 the SP admitted to its ranks the members of the Independent Socialist League led by former Trotskyist Max Shachtman, who was now moving rightwards. Some of his more youthful supporters, however, rejected his right move and worked in the Young Socialist League of the SP until they left the SP entirely in the early 1960s to form the Independent Socialist Committee. Meanwhile Shachtman emerged as the leader of the right wing of the SP.


By 1973 the Socialist Party of America had fallen under the control of the right-Shachtmanites and their allies, who renamed it the Social Democrats USA, in pursuit of their strategy of realignment in American politics that sought to realign the Democratic Party on a pro-labor and pro-civil rights basis. Meanwhile, a faction led by Michael Harrington became the Democratic Socialists of America, which also worked within the Democratic Party but was less dogmatically anti-communist. A third faction, including David McReynolds, reclaimed the name Socialist Party USA.

This last re-formed Socialist Party has developed into a small third party in U.S. politics with roughly 1,000 members. The party regularly runs candidates for public office without any great success.

Presidential Tickets, 1900-1956

External links

Socialist Party of America websites

Related historic party websites


Further reading


  • Social Democratic Federation of America Records 1933-1956. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. 6.5 linear feet (13 boxes). Tamiment 011. R2644-R2647. Online guide ( retrieved April 20, 2005.
  • Social-Democratic Party of America Records 1900-1905. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. 5 linear inches (1 box). Tamiment 056.2. R 2632. Online guide ( retrieved April 20, 2005.
  • Socialist minute books 1872-1907 (New York, N.Y.). Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. 3 linear feet (7 boxes). Tamiment 056.1. R2630-R2631. Online guide ( retrieved April 20, 2005.
  • The Socialist Assemblymen Papers. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. 0.75 linear foot (2 boxes). 056.8. R 2641. Online guide ( retrieved April 20, 2005.
  • Socialist Party of New York State Records 1906-1912. Socialist Party of New York State. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University.5 linear inches (1 box). Tamiment 056.4. Online guide ( retrieved April 20, 2005.

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