Socialist Labor Party

views updated Jun 27 2018


SOCIALIST LABOR PARTY. Founded in 1877, the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) is the longest-lived socialist organization in the United States. Never rising above a membership of several thousand, the SLP has from time to time exerted influence far beyond its numbers.

Its origins can be found in the communities of German-language immigrant workers who formed labor union bodies, organized social clubs, and published newspapers with broadly socialistic views from the immediate post–Civil War era to the early 1900s. From their ranks mainly arose the earliest U.S. sections of the First International (1864), dominated by the followers of Karl Marx. After the expulsion of American-born followers of the feminist and spiritualist Victoria Woodhull in 1871, this preliminary movement collapsed, although local labor activities continued unabated. A Sozialistische Arbeiter Partei (Socialist Labor Party) formed in 1877, in time to take advantage of working-class outrage following the national railroad strike of that year and to elect members to local and state office in Chicago and elsewhere. (See Railroad Strike of 1877.)

The party swiftly declined thereafter and suffered grievously from the defection of "revolutionary socialists" (known widely as anarchists) based in Chicago—the heart of the most influential radicalism of the 1880s. Reaction to the Haymarket Riot (in which anarchists were falsely accused of a bombing, arrested, tried, and executed), the upswing of the labor movement, and the publication of Edward Bellamy's utopian novel Looking Backward (1889), followed by the economic depression of the 1890s, all encouraged another wave of political socialism. Once again the little Socialist Labor Party elected a handful of members to local office and bid fair to take over sections of the American labor movement.

Disappointment again followed, as the Knights of Labor collapsed, the American Federation of Labor took a conservative turn, and socialist efforts to organize an all-inclusive union alternative soon failed. In 1897–1899, more than half of the SLP membership defected, soon to join with native-born socialists to form the Socialist Party of America in 1901.

Now a propaganda group, the SLP had one important mission remaining. Daniel De Leon, a former Columbia University lecturer, had become the voice of the SLP and of antiracist sentiment within the socialist Second International. In 1905 he helped found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and its bitter opposition by employers, the press, and the American Federation of Labor made De Leon and his organization the prime propagandists of radical labor.

De Leon's articulation of a classless society, governed from the workplace rather than the political state (which would be abolished) remains a signal contribution of American socialist thought. But internal disputes led to the expulsion of De Leon from the IWW in 1907.

De Leon's ideas nevertheless continued to exert wide influence upon the strategists of industrial unionism. From the 1910s until the 1960s, SLP loyalists meanwhile distributed many millions of leaflets and ran in countless educational election campaigns, attacking capitalism's unfairness and irrationality and continuing its utopian appeal for a noncoercive society. An aging membership and confusion about the radical movements of the 1960s practically dissolved the remnant, although it has narrowly maintained its existence.


Buhle, Paul. "The World of Daniel De Leon." In his From the Knights of Labor to the New World Order. New York: Garland, 1997.

Laslett, John. Labor and the Left. New York: Basic, 1970).


See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Labor Parties ; Socialist Party of America .