SOCIALIST MOVEMENT. Socialism is a closely intertwined set of liberating ideas and social movements that emerged in the aftermath of the French Revolution. No single definition encompasses the many socialist variants that took root in Europe and America, but socialism enfolds certain key ideas. As products of the Enlightenment, socialists believe in the power of rational thought, in the malleability of economic institutions and social mores, and in a humanistic solidarity that transcends the nation-state. In such a socialist world, the major instruments of production, distribution, and exchange are owned and administered for the welfare of all. Socialism entails the common ownership of the means of production, either through the state or some other mechanism of collective rule, and it seeks a broad and equitable distribution of the wealth generated by capital, especially in so far as early-nineteenth-century industrialism demonstrated a capacity to generate both great wealth and extreme social inequality.
Socialism's Golden Era
American socialism developed from a variety of movements and traditions. Protestant perfectionism, sometimes in tandem with the romantic currents of the early nineteenth century, animated many of the utopian communities and cultural experiments that sought to put into practice an egalitarian, anti-capitalist idealism. Inspired by Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, and Henry George, reform intellectuals established a series of communitarian experiments, among them the transcendentalist Brook Farm, which led an unsteady life in the 1840s; upstate New York's Oneida Community, which marriage reformer John Humphrey Noyes founded in 1848; and the Fair Hope Community of Alabama, inspired by George's single-tax principles.
Such utopias, imagined and experimental, represented an important counterweight to the ideological and legal hegemony of laissez-faire capitalism. By far the most influential utopia was in Edward Bellamy's novel, Looking Backward (1888), which captured for millions of readers the disquiet and disgust generated by Gilded Age capitalism. Like so many Christian utopians, Bellamy initially envisioned a socialist future characterized by order, hierarchy, a genteel culture, and an absence of social conflict. The novel appealed strongly to the established Protestant middle class, disenchanted with the chaos of rapid industrialization, but it won an even larger working-class audience that was inspired by Bellamy's combination of rationality and moralism. Indeed, Bellamy came to adopt a much more democratic, feminist, working-class outlook in the 1890s.
Socialism at Its Peak
The socialist movement reached its height during the first two decades of the twentieth century, when the values inherent in Protestant utopianism were linked to the more "scientific" brand of socialism that had arrived on American shores in the wake of the failed European revolutions of 1848. German "48ers" made Americans aware of the early work of Karl Marx, whose ideas forever transformed the way in which both conservatives and radicals would think about capitalism, social class, and the nature of historical causation. Marx saw capitalism as the progressive, dialectical product of the social and economic forces that had ruptured the feudal world and destroyed the power of the landed aristocracy. But capitalism, he contended, was not a stable system: free-market competition tended toward a declining rate of profitability, especially as technological innovations periodically destroyed existing production regimes. Meanwhile, industrial capitalism, with
its factories, mines, railroads, and urban landscape, generated a strategically powerful proletariat whose own liberation required the socialization of industry and the political and economic liquidation of the bourgeoisie.
The massive coal, rail, and steel strikes of the late nineteenth century and the state violence that suppressed them provided fertile soil for socialist agitation and organization. The most rigorous Marxists were found in the heavily German Socialist Labor Party (SLP), founded in 1877. Led in the 1890s by Daniel De Leon, the SLP became increasingly sectarian and hostile to the multifaceted political reformism of the era and to the more cautious unions of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), presided over by the ex-socialist Samuel Gompers.
The Socialist Party of America (SP) was a much more pluralistic and successful institution. Its leading personality was Eugene V. Debs, who embodied much that made the pre–World War I SP attractive. A Protestant railroad unionist from Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs moved into the socialist orbit after the courts and the army crushed the 1894 Pullman strike and sent him to jail. After a brief flirtation with a socialist colonization scheme in the West, Debs helped merge existing socialist organizations into the Socialist Party, founded in 1901. By this time he had already conducted the first of his five rousing campaigns for president of the United States, during which hundreds of thousands heard a message of socialist transcendence delivered in an idiom that resonated well with those Americans, both native-born and immigrant, who were seeking a twentieth-century version of the republican-producer values that had anchored American democracy and citizenship in earlier decades.
Socialism's golden era lasted from 1900 until the 1917–1919 period, when controversies over World War I and the Russian Revolution fractured both the Socialist Party and the very meaning of socialism itself. At its apogee in 1912, when Debs won more than 900,000 votes for president, or 6 percent of the entire presidential vote, the party enrolled about 118,000 members. Socialist ideas and organizations were rooted in three distinct communities. The first was that of the native-born lower-middle class, many of whom were Protestant veterans of Populist, Prohibition, and other rural insurgencies. The second community was intensely urban, immigrant, and activist. German, Croatian, Hungarian, and Jewish Russian immigrants became an increasingly important mass base for the Socialist Party, even as these populations used the party as a way station to their own Americanization. And finally, the SP attracted numerous adherents from the lively world of pre–World War I reform, members of the
social gospel, Progressive, and feminist movements. These intellectuals and social movement leaders put the ideas and values of Debsian socialism in fruitful dialogue with other liberal currents and reform institutions. Socialists of both the left and the right played an organic role in the agitation for women's suffrage, the abolition of child labor, and unemployment insurance. Jane Addams, Walter Lippmann, Florence Kelley, Helen Keller, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Carl Sandburg, and Vida Scudder worked effectively within this milieu.
Aside from Debs, hundreds of socialists campaigned for state and local offices during these years and scores were elected to municipal posts, notably in Milwaukee, Reading, Pennsylvania, Berkeley, California, Butte, Montana, and Flint, Michigan; in various small towns in the upper Midwest; and in states of intense post-Populist conflict such as Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas. With more than three hundred periodicals, mostly weeklies, the party press was even more varied and influential. The Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward had a circulation of 200,000, while the Kansas-based weekly, the Appeal to Reason, peaked at three-quarters of a million subscribers. Scores of immigrant newspapers, like the Slovakian Rovnost Ludu, the Slovenian Proletarec, and the three Finnish papers—Tyomies, Raivaaja, and Toveri—sustained the socialist idea within that large portion of the American working class whose native tongue was not English.
Internal Divisions and External Repression
This sprawling, multi-ethnic movement was ideologically fractious. No machine ran the party, although in Milwaukee, Victor Berger and other German trade unionists established an organization of considerable durability. In New York City, the Jewish-socialist garment unions were a powerful bloc. Debs was the most famous socialist of his day, but he avoided participation in many of the party's internal disputes. In contrast to socialist practice in Russia and Germany, the party's own publication, the International Socialist Review, was a popular and eclectic journal of opinion, not an authoritative ideological organ. This pluralism put the party very much within the American political vein, but as with all third parties in American history, the frustrations endemic to perpetual opposition generated a set of ideological divisions that fractured the party in the second decade of the twentieth century.
Two fissures were particularly important because they layered ideological dispute on top of social and ethnic division. In all socialist parties, tensions arose over trade union strategy and its relationship to political action. This became particularly acute in the United States with the growth of a working-class syndicalism that challenged the increasingly conservative AFL leadership in the years after 1905, when the radical Industrial Workers of the World was founded. Hostile to both electoral action and business unionism, it attracted the allegiance of many socialists, among them William Haywood, who led insurrectionary mass strikes among western metal miners and eastern textile workers. His influence within the SP was opposed by a more reformist wing, led by Berger and the New York City intellectual Morris Hillquit. They thought that Haywood's militant rhetoric on behalf of "sabotage," which they interpreted as meaning violence, and his disdain for an electoral strategy were counterproductive. This wing of the party wanted to function within existing unions and cooperate with the AFL on key issues, including support for immigration restriction and the routinization of a stable, collective bargaining regime. At the party's bitterly divided 1912 convention, the forces identified with Hillquit and Berger pushed through a clause mandating the expulsion of any member advocating sabotage, after which Haywood was recalled from the party leadership in a referendum vote.
This divide in the party ranks turned into a rupture after the Bolshevik Revolution and U.S. entry into World War I. American socialists were far more antiwar than those in the mass European parties who supported their respective fatherlands. Once U.S. belligerency became official in April 1917, the socialists convened in St. Louis and by an overwhelming majority denounced American entry as an imperialistic "crime against the people." Party members were to engage in "continuous, active, and public opposition" to conscription and they were to defend the right to strike. Such principled antiwar radicalism had a dichotomous consequence. On the one hand the party enhanced its strength among all those hostile to the war. These included radical Progressives such as Randolph Bourne and John Reed; pacifists like the young Presbyterian minister, Norman Thomas; an emerging group of Harlem blacks grouped around A. Philip Randolph's Messenger; and most important, an increasingly large mass of immigrant socialists, inspired by the Russian Revolution, who were organized into several foreign-language sections of the party. Despite government repression and patriotic fervor, a burst of socialist electoral enthusiasm gave party campaigners up to one-third of the vote in many industrial districts. In the Midwest and Northeast, several socialists were elected to state legislatures and to municipal office.
Despite socialism's appeal during an era when the capitalist nation-state revealed a barbarian visage, American socialism virtually collapsed. First, government repression and patriotic vigilantism proved debilitating. The militantly antiwar Industrial Workers of the World was practically destroyed when, in September 1917, Justice Department agents raided its offices across the nation and arrested virtually the entire leadership. The SP did not suffer such an onslaught, but numerous leaders, including Eugene Debs, spent years in court or in jail because of their vocal opposition to the war.
Divisions within the party, however, were far more debilitating than government repression. Although most socialists were antiwar, many intellectuals, especially those who sought to link the socialist idea to Progressive-Era state building, abandoned the party and supported the Wilsonian war effort. These included both the radical novelist Upton Sinclair and the "revisionist" theoretician William English Walling. A more numerous and consequential defection came on the left after the Bolshevik Revolution split the world socialist movement into those who defended and those who denounced the power of the Soviets. In the United States the socialist Right, oriented toward trade unionism and municipal reform, denounced Bolshevik autocracy and fought to maintain control of the party against a revolutionary Left, whose mass base lay with those eastern European socialists who looked to Moscow for inspiration and guidance. Although the right-leaning functionaries retained control of the party apparatus in 1919 and 1920, their victory was a Pyrrhic one, for a rival set of communist splinter parties emerged out of the factionalism of the SP Left even as tens of thousands of militants drifted from Socialist Party life. In the 1920s and early 1930s the SP remained larger than even a unified Communist Party, but its membership was older, less active, and concentrated in but a few regions, notably southeast Wisconsin and New York City.
The Great Depression and Afterward
Organized socialism in the United States never recovered from this debacle. In the early 1930s the Great Depression made anti-capitalist ideologies attractive to millions, and in Norman Thomas, the SP acquired a most inspiring spokesman who gained 885,000 votes (2.2 percent) in the 1932 presidential vote. But the party could never translate its ethical appeal and economic critique into organizational strength during the depression decade. There were two reasons for this. First, as Thomas would later put it, "Roosevelt stole our program." The main thrust of the New Deal was to stabilize U.S. capitalism and ameliorate class conflict, so Norman Thomas remained a sharp critic of Rooseveltian compromise and failure, especially when it came to the plight of southern sharecroppers, inadequate New Deal relief, and U.S. unwillingness to support the Spanish republic. But few socialists were revolutionaries in the 1930s; since the Progressive Era, they had advanced a social democratic program designed to ameliorate and restructure capitalism. New Deal reforms that regulated business, encouraged trade unionism, and framed a welfare state fulfilled enough of that agenda to rob socialism of its working-class base and union leadership cadre. In 1936 most union socialists, led by a powerful old guard from the garment trades, supported FDR as a Democrat, or in New York state as the candidate of the American Labor Party, which was designed to channel left-wing votes to New Deal candidates.
Equally important, the Socialist Party of the depression decade and afterward never developed an electoral strategy or an ideological posture that avoided a debilitating sectarianism. For a time the American communists did much better. Their ideological and electoral opportunism during the era of the Popular Front did not split the Communist Party because all domestic issues were tangential to the overriding commitment of defending the Soviet Union and adhering to its "line." (The CP collapsed in the years after 1956 not because McCarthyite repression had finally taken its toll, but because long-simmering internal disputes over the character of the international communist movement finally came to a head when Soviet Party leader Nikita Khrushchev demoralized communists by admitting to many of Stalin's criminal blunders.) But the socialists had no foreign lodestar, so the lure of participation in mainstream politics generated division after division within party ranks. When new industrial unions arose in the nation's basic industries, socialists like Walter Reuther and Philip Van Gelder easily ascended to important posts. Unlike the Communists, however, they never formed a coherent bloc and most left the SP before the end of the 1930s. Meanwhile, the most active and intellectually resourceful SP youth were periodically recruited away, often by the Trotskyists, whose rigorous critique of both capitalism and Stalinism proved highly attractive. By 1941 a "silent split" in the party, precipitated by Norman Thomas's pacifist opposition to World War II, had reduced the SP to little more than a sect.
The American Socialist Party abandoned most electoral politics after 1948, and instead sought a realignment of the two-party system so as to more effectively influence labor and the Democrats. Unfortunately, the socialists' flight to mainstream political relevance put them at odds with the new radicalism of the 1960s. Although many leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society had been nurtured within a world of socialist institutions and ideas, socialists in the 1960s distanced themselves from the politics and culture of the New Left. American socialism's most prominent spokesman, Michael Harrington, whose politics had been shaped under the tutelage of Max Schactman's Trotskyist brand of anti-Stalinism, was attuned to the coalition-building strategy of the AFL-CIO leadership and disdainful of the New Left's anti-anti-Communism. Likewise, SP loyalists were at best equivocal about the U.S. war in Vietnam, which many saw as a necessary fight against third-world Stalinism. By the end of 1972 this had engendered yet another party fission, with Harrington leading a left-liberal breakaway faction, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (which in 1982 became the Democratic Socialists of America). The rest of the party also split, with a tiny pacifist fraction retaining rights to the old Socialist Party name, while a well-connected strata of neoconservatives, calling themselves Social Democrats USA, were providing intellectual fire-power for the Reaganite assault on Cold War détente, post–New Deal liberalism, and affirmative action policies to aid racial minorities.
Assessments of American Socialism
The ostensible failure of U.S. socialism has long fascinated historians and social scientists. In 1906 the German sociologist Werner Sombart entitled a study of American society, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? He answered, "On the reefs of roast beefand apple pie socialist Utopias of every sort are sent to their doom." In other words, American capitalism was so successful and so "exceptional" that the socialist appeal could make little headway, certainly in comparison to Europe. This argument for an American exceptionalism has been a hardy perennial, with Louis Hartz and Seymour Martin Lipset among the most important late-twentieth-century proponents of this thesis. Hartz argued that the absence of a feudal past meant that America was, in effect, born bourgeois. Like Hartz, Lipset also offered something close to a metahistorical causality, emphasizing the nation's hegemonic Protestant-individualistic culture that he thought mediated against collectivist values and institutions. Other "exceptionalist" features of the U.S. political scene have included ethnic and racial divisions within the working population and the federalist character of the U.S. electoral system.
Another influential answer to the "why no socialism" question was advanced by Daniel Bell, who asserted in Marxian Socialism in the United States (1952) that the socialist impulse was an essentially religious, chiliastic one. Whatever their rhetoric or program, socialists were "trapped by the unhappy problem of living in but not of the world, so they could only act, and then inadequately, as a moral, but not a political force in an immoral society." Bell's critique may have had some plausibility at midcentury, when memories of the socialist debacle during the Great Depression decade were still fresh. But he ignored the experience of the western European social democratic parties, which were often members of governing coalitions that built the modern welfare state. Furthermore, his argument for an inherent socialist sectarianism also failed to recognize the incremental, reformist character of socialist (and communist) strategy during the entire second half of the twentieth century.
Indeed, socialism's legacy during the twentieth century has been twofold. First, its values, aspirations, and analysis have always been far more influential than its party organizations. Ex-socialists did not flee a God that failed, but instead sought a more efficacious venue to put their ideals into practice. This has often generated a creatively ambiguous line between socialists and reformers, especially during the Progressive Era and the New Deal and in unions, among many feminists, and in movements for peace and civil rights. In practice, if not theory, liberalism and socialism have been joined at the hip. The second key legacy of American socialism was a highly influential critique of Stalinism and other forms of authoritarian collectivism. From the mid-1920s, most socialists have argued that the Soviet model should be fought, at home and abroad, because of the communist failure to embody core socialist values: industrial democracy, social equality, and anti-imperialism. Remarkably, this was the critique adopted by the more sophisticated proponents of the U.S. posture throughout much of the Cold War, that the communist states of Asia and Eastern Europe were mendacious, not because they abolished capitalism or suppressed religion, but because they generated a new bureaucratic ruling class that presided over regimes that were unfree, inequitable, and imperialistic.
Bell, Daniel. Marxian Socialism in the United States. 1952. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996.
Buhle, Mari Jo. Women and American Socialism, 1870–1920. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.
———, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas. Encyclopedia of the American Left. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
Buhle, Paul. Marxism in the United Sates: Remapping the History of the American Left. London: Verso, 1987.
Harrington, Michael. Socialism. New York: Bantam Books, 1972.
Howe, Irving. Socialism and America. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace, 1985.
Isserman, Maurice. The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington. New York: Public Affairs, 2000.
Kipnis, Ira. The American Socialist Movement: 1897–1912. New York: Columbia University Press, 1952.
Kloppenberg, James T. Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870–1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Gary Marks. It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States. New York: Norton, 2000.
Salvatore, Nick. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
Swanberg, W. A. Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist. New York: Scribner, 1976.
Wald, Alan M. The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
Warren, Frank A. An Alternative Vision: The Socialist Party in the 1930s. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1974.
Weinstein, James. The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912–1925. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967
"Socialist Movement." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/socialist-movement
"Socialist Movement." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved November 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/socialist-movement
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.