Socialist Party of America

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Socialist Party of America

United States 1901


The Socialist Party of America was born in 1901 when the Socialist Labor Party and Socialist Democratic Party of America (SDPA) combined. SDPA leader Eugene V. Debs, a 1900 presidential candidate, was the socialists' perennial candidate for two decades. The party attracted many of the era's leading intellectuals with its call for social reforms and hundreds of thousands of workers with its support for radical labor causes. Party membership rose to more than 150,000 within a decade. In addition to civil rights demands, the party defended improved labor conditions, housing, and welfare legislation. The onset of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and a government offensive against the radical left were severe blows to the party. Even so, Debs managed to win nearly a million votes from prison in the 1920 presidential election. Although the party never displaced the major parties, the socialists would see many of their causes eventually embraced by the mainstream parties.


  • 1901: U.S. President William McKinley is assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, an Anarchist. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt becomes president.
  • 1904: Beginning of the Russo-Japanese War, which lasts into 1905 and results in a resounding Japanese victory. In Russia, the war is followed by the Revolution of 1905, which marks the beginning of the end of czarist rule; meanwhile, Japan is poised to become the first major non-Western power of modern times.
  • 1907: U.S. markets experience a financial panic.
  • 1911: Turkish-Italian War sees the first use of aircraft as an offensive weapon. Italian victory results in the annexation of Libya.
  • 1913: Two incidents illustrate the increasingly controversial nature of the arts in the new century. Visitors to the 17 February Armory Show in New York City are scandalized by such works as Marcel Duchamp's cubist Nude Descending a Staircase, which elicits vehement criticism, and theatergoers at the 29 May debut of Igor Stravinksy's ballet Le Sacrédu Printemps (The Rite of Spring) are so horrified by the new work that a riot ensues.
  • 1914: On 28 June in the town of Sarajevo, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinates Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and wife Sophie. In the weeks that follow, Austria declares war on Serbia, and Germany on Russia and France, while Great Britain responds by declaring war on Germany. By the beginning of August, the lines are drawn, with the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro, and Japan) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey).
  • 1915: Turkey's solution to its Armenian "problem" becomes the first entry in a long catalogue of genocidal acts undertaken during the twentieth century. Claiming that the Armenians support Russia, the Turks deport some 1.75 million of them to the Mesopotamian desert, where between 600,000 and 1 million perish.
  • 1916: Battles of Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front. The latter sees the first use of tanks, by the British.
  • 1917: In Russia, a revolution in March (or February according to the old Russian calendar) forces the abdication of Czar Nicholas II. By July, Alexander Kerensky has formed a democratic socialist government, and continues to fight the Germans, even as starvation and unrest sweep the nation. On 7 November (25 October old style), the Bolsheviks under V. I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky seize power. By 15 December, they have removed Russia from the war by signing the Treaty of Brest Litovsk with Germany.
  • 1918: Upheaval sweeps Germany, which for a few weeks in late 1918 and early 1919 seems poised on the verge of communist revolution—or at least a Russian-style communist coup d'etat. But reactionary forces have regained their strength, and the newly organized Freikorps (composed of unemployed soldiers) suppresses the revolts. Even stronger than reaction or revolution, however, is republican sentiment, which opens the way for the creation of a democratic government based at Weimar.
  • 1919: Treaty of Versailles signed by the Allies and Germany, but rejected by the U.S. Senate. This is due in part to rancor between President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Senate leaders, and in part to concerns over Wilson's plan to commit the United States to the newly established League of Nations and other international duties. Not until 1921 will Congress formally end U.S. participation in the war, but it will never agree to join the League.

Event and Its Context

Origins of American Socialism

The United States in 1900 was no stranger to socialist ideals. Socialistic utopian movements appeared throughout American history, and the utopian ideals of pre-Marxist European socialists such as Charles Fourier gained American adherents in the mid-1800s. The late nineteenth century, most remembered for its industrialists, also brought greater class consciousness and struggle among workers who felt exploited by the wage system. Against a backdrop of strikes, unemployment, wage reduction for unskilled and semiskilled laborers, and general economic unrest, American working-class intellectuals found inspiration in works such as Karl Marx's Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto. In 1871 and 1872 American sections of the International Workingmen's Association (later known as the First International, a precursor to the Socialist International) formed, but they died out in 1876 after disputes between Marx and the anarchists. A time when American workers were forming associations such as the Knights of Labor was also a time of widespread immigration from Europe, where socialist and labor union activities were suffering a level of repression sufficient to inspire workers to emigrate. According to Eunice Minette Schuster's 1931-1932 study, "Native American Anarchism," industrial conditions met by immigrants to the U.S. in the last quarter of the nineteenth century "were favorable to Socialist and Anarchist propaganda."

American socialism's first foray into party politics began in 1877. Dissatisfied with American Federation of Labor (AFL) leader Samuel Gompers's eschewal of political action, Daniel De Leon split with the AFL to found the Socialist Labor Party (SLP); the new party largely comprised exiled German worker groups, though De Leon established complete control by the 1890s. In 1897 trade unionist Eugene V. Debs founded the Social Democratic Party of America (SDPA); a fiery orator who had already gained credibility among the working class for his role in the American Railway Union and the Pullman Strike of 1894, Debs brought rapid growth to the party. His presidential run of 1900 (with running mate Job Harriman) reaped 87,814 votes and encouraged the various groups and individuals who had campaigned for him to convene the following year.

Unity Convention

On 29 July 1901 socialists met at the Masonic Hall in Indianapolis for a "Unity Convention." In an attempt to forge a united socialist voice and a series of demands, the meeting attracted socialists from all walks of life: progressive intellectuals, Christian socialists, Jewish labor activists, and members of the AFL and Knights of Labor. Some had agrarian backgrounds. Others were members of the SLP or had been converted to socialism through Edward Bellamy's utopian bestseller Looking Backward. In the end, the SDPA merged with an anti-De Leonist faction of the SLP led by Morris Hillquit. With Debs as its leader, the Socialist Party of America was born.

"As a rule, large capitalists are Republicans and small capitalists are Democrats, but workingmen must remember that they are all capitalists," Debs wrote in his 1900 essay, "Outlook for socialism in the United States." Members of both major parties, he said, were "politically supporting their class interests, and this is always and everywhere the capitalist class."

Though some delegates thought that making specific demands might lead to the acceptance of a softer kind of capitalism, the convention came up with a list of immediate demands. These included public ownership of utilities, transportation, communications, monopolies and trusts; workers' compensation and insurance; reduced hours and higher wages; a public system of industries; equal political and civil rights for all men and women; greater application of proportional representation and resources such as the referendum, initiative or recall; and universal education, with books, clothing, and food for everyone under age 18.

In a neutral stance toward the eastern and Chicago groups, the party established its first office in St. Louis, with Leon Greenbaum as national secretary. Within three years, the party had roughly 16,000 members nationwide; by 1904, socialists were winning seats in local government. That year, Debs was the Socialist Party's candidate for president. Running with Benjamin Hanford as vice presidential candidate, he multiplied almost fivefold his 1900 election results with a total of more than 400,000 votes.

Wobbly Alliance

In 1905 Debs and other Socialist Party members helped found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or "the wobblies"), a decision that would spark divisions in the party for the next eight years. "The trades-union movement is today under the control of the capitalist class. It is preaching capitalist economics," Debs told delegates to the IWW's founding convention in Chicago on 29 June 1905.

As a mosaic of radical movements, this "One Big Union" included anarchists such as Lucy Parsons, trade unionists such as Mother Jones, and syndicalists such as William D. "Big Bill" Haywood. Debs's differences with Haywood were an important source of tension within the Socialist Party; despite agreement on the need for the working class to defend itself, Debs came to believe that the wobblies advocated violence and resigned in 1906. Other party members stayed active in the IWW, and Haywood remained on the Socialist Party's national committee. In a 1911 speech, Haywood criticized evolutionary socialism and advocate direct action. This divergence from the electoral approach led to Haywood's expulsion from the national committee (via mail vote) and in his followers abandoning the party in 1913.

Electoral Advances

In 1908 Debs and Hanford once again declared their quest for the White House. This time Debs and his entourage toured the country in a special campaign train known as the "Red Special," accompanied by the "Red Special Band." Debs addressed enthusiastic crowds at dozens of daily stops. That year they won more than 420,000 votes.

By 1912 the party boasted well over 100,000 members and had 1039 dues-paying members in public office; this included 56 mayors and more than 300 aldermen. In 1910 Victor L. Berger represented a Milwaukee district as the first socialist member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Although Debs's chances of beating Democrats or Republicans in a presidential race were minimal, his campaigns brought into the national dialogue issues including child labor, civil rights, and universal suffrage that otherwise might have been ignored. As Debs said, "I'd rather vote for what I want and not get it, than for what I don't want and get it." That year Debs and running mate Emil Seidel won nearly 900,000 votes; at about 6 percent of that year's total, it would be the pinnacle of the Socialist Party's electoral success. By 1913 the socialist journal Appeal to Reason hit a circulation of more than 760,000 and featured contributors like Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Helen Keller, and Mother Jones.

In 1916 Allan Benson was the party's presidential candidate; George R. Kirkpatrick was his running mate. The result was a significant drop from Debs's 900,000-vote showing in 1912, to less than 600,000. Debs declined the presidential nomination to run for Congress at a time when the United States began to consider going to war.

War in Europe, War on Activists

World War I was the beginning of the end for much of the socialist leadership. When the government of Woodrow Wilson entered the war in 1917, the Socialist Party met in St. Louis to condemn the action (140 votes to 5, with 31 "centrist" votes). The government quickly reacted against those who criticized the war or resisted the draft, convicting of treason Socialist Party officers like Irwin St. John Tucker, J. Louis Engdahl, and Adolph Germer (national executive secretary). Victor Berger was charged with violating the Espionage Act, yet was reelected to Congress while out of prison on appeal; the House refused to seat him despite his electoral victory, and he was thereafter sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Debs's turn came on 16 June 1918, when he made a speech in Canton, Ohio, condemning war and comparing the capitalists on Wall Street to the Kaiser's men. According to Debs, working-class men "shed their blood and furnish their corpses," yet never have a voice in declaring war or making peace. "It is the ruling class that invariably do both," he declared. On 14 September, Debs was convicted of violating the Espionage Act and sentenced to 10 years in prison. After a failed appeal in April 1918, he entered the federal penitentiary at Moundsville, West Virginia; he was later moved to the Atlanta Penitentiary.

The government persecution of suspected anarchists and communists continued in 1919, just two years after the Russian Revolution. That year, more than 10,000 were arrested on un-substantiated charges of plans for revolution. Although most were released, the government deported some 248 activists (including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman) to Russia.

From the Jailhouse to the White House

In 1920, with Debs still in prison, the Socialist Party of America once again nominated him for president. Debs accepted and ran with Chicagoan Seymour Stedman. Debs's prisoner status was used prominently: one popular campaign button portrayed him in prison stripes with the slogan "For President Convict No. 9653." Another poster said, "From Atlanta Prison to the Whitehouse, 1920." His program called for better conditions for workers, welfare and housing legislation, and for making more people eligible to vote. That year Debs received almost 920,000 votes, his highest total ever. Despite the increase in actual votes over 1912, Debs's share accounted for only 3.5 percent of 1920 voters. He was pardoned in 1921, though prison time had seriously deteriorated his health.

Given the Red Scare and the assault on leftists, people began to fear subscribing to leftist publications; by November 1922 the Appeal to Reason ceased publication, followed by The Call in 1923. In the 1924 elections, the Socialist Party became a key endorser of the Progressive Party headed by Senator Robert La Follette, which won more than 4.8 million votes. The Socialist Party revived in 1928 with Norman Thomas, who ran for president six times, as its key candidate.

Key Players

Berger, Victor (1860-1929): An immigrant from Austria-Hungary, Berger was a founding member of the American Socialist Party. In 1910 he became the first socialist in the U.S. Congress, where he championed the idea of old age pensions.

Debs, Eugene Victor (1855-1926): Debs was a trade unionist from Terre Haute, Indiana, who led the foundation of the American Railway Union and the Socialist Party of America. He ran for president five times and was twice imprisoned for his political activism.

Haywood, William Dudley (1869-1928): "Big Bill" Haywood was a Utah-born miner and union activist who joined the American Socialist Party in 1901 and helped found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905. His preference for direct action over electoral politics made him the leader of the party's radical left and put him at odds with Debs. He was ousted from the party in 1913.

Hillquit, Morris (1869-1933): Born in Riga, Russia, as Moses Hilkowitz, he immigrated to the United States at age 17 and worked for the Socialist Labor Party, established the United Hebrew Trades, and helped Debs found the American Socialist Party. A lawyer by trade, Hillquit was the party's leading theoretician.

See also: American Federation of Labor; First International; Industrial Workers of the World; Knights of Labor; Pullman Strike; Russian Revolutions; Second International.



Schuster, Eunice Minette. "Native American Anarchism, aStudy of Left-Wing American Individualism." Smith College Studies in History 17, nos. 1-4. (October 1931-July 1932).


Debs, E.V. "Outlook for Socialism in the United States."International Socialist Review. September 1900 [cited 28 September 2002]. <>.

——. "Speech at the Founding Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World." Industrial Workers of the World Founding Convention Minutes. Chicago, 29 June 1905 [cited 28 September 2002]. http:// iwwfound.htm.

Official Site of the Eugene V. Debs Foundation. "Eugene V. Debs—Political activist" [cited 28 September 2002]. <>.

Zeidler, Frank P. History of the Socialist Party. Milwaukee:Socialist Party of Wisconsin, 18 July 1991.

Additional Resources


Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive [cited 28 September 2002].<>.

—Brett Allan King