A Century of Struggle: The History of the Socialist Party

The Early Years (1901-1945)

The Socialist Party of the United States of America was formally organized at a unity convention in Indianapolis in 1901. The two merging groups were the Social Democratic Party of Eugene Victor Debs and the “Kangaroo” wing of the older Socialist Labor Party. The SDP had been organized in 1898 by veterans of the Pullman strike of the American Railway Union, led by Debs, and was largely composed of American-born workers. The SLP had its roots in the American circles of Marx’s First International and the Workingmen’s Party of America, and was primarily composed of immigrants in big cities. By the 1880s, under the rule of Daniel De Leon, it had become increasingly intolerant of internal dissent and had suffered several splits.

From the beginning the Socialist Party was the ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical. On the divisive issue of “reform vs. revolution,” the Socialist Party from the beginning adopted a compromise formula, producing platforms calling for revolutionary change but also making “immediate demands” of a reformist nature. A perennially unresolved issue was whether revolutionary change could come about without violence; there were always pacifists and evolutionists in the Party as well as those opposed to both those views. The Socialist Party historically stressed cooperatives as much as labor unions, and included the concepts of revolution by education and of “building the new society within the shell of the old.”

The Socialist Party aimed to become a major party; in the years prior to World War I it elected two Members of Congress, over 70 mayors, innumerable state legislators and city councilors. Its membership topped 100,000, and its Presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, received close to a million votes in 1912 and again in 1920. But as with any ideologically mixed organization, it was forever in internal disputes. An early disagreement was over the Industrial Workers of the World, which Debs and De Leon had helped create, as a competitor to the American Federation of Labor. Some Socialists supported the IWW, while others considered “dual unionism” to be fatal to the solidarity of the labor movement and supported the Socialist faction in the AFL, led by Max Hayes.

During the First World War, the American Socialist Party was one of the very few parties in the international socialist movement to maintain its opposition to the war, and many Socialists were imprisoned, including Debs himself. In 1919, there was a major split in the Party, when those who accepted the demand for unconditional allegiance to the Third (Communist) International formed the Communist Party (composed mostly of the foreign-language federations) and the Communist Labor Party (led by John Reed). Under pressure from the International, the two parties later merged, forming the United Communist Party (later to become the Communist Party USA).

Weakened by the loss of the Bolsheviks, the Socialist Party did not run a Presidential candidate in 1924, but joined the AFL and the railroad brotherhoods in support of the independent campaign of the progressive Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, hoping to build a permanent Farmer-Labor Party. In 1928, the Socialist Party revived as an independent electoral entity under the leadership of Norman Thomas, an opponent of World War I and a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In 1932, the impact of the Great Depression resulted in revived support for the Socialist Party, and 896,000 votes were cast for the Party’s Presidential candidate, Norman Thomas. But, by 1936, the left-liberal policies of the New Deal took a severe toll. In that year, David Dubinsky and other socialist union leaders in New York called on their membership to vote for Roosevelt, and formed the Social Democratic Federation to promote socialism within the ranks of the liberal/labor wing of the Democratic Party. The Socialist Party’s vote in 1936 dropped to 185,000, little more than 20 percent of those cast in 1932. The outbreak of the war against fascism (the Second World War) and the wartime prosperity further weakened all parties on the left.

The Post-War Years (1945-1968)

While it was the Communist Party USA that suffered the most from the McCarthy period, all the left was seriously impaired, and by the mid-fifties little remained of organized radical politics. The Socialist Party was down to about 2,000 members, and had more or less withdrawn from electoral action in the face of the increasingly restrictive ballot-access laws passed by state legislatures around the country. In 1956, the Socialist Party and the Social Democratic Federation reunited, under pressure from the Socialist International (to which both groups were affiliated). A right-wing group in the SDF opposed the merger, and established the Democratic Socialist Federation.

As of 1957, the SP-SDF was pervaded by a strong sense that the time had arrived to start over and rebuild a major radical party in America. Internally it was the same kind of party it had always been — ecumenical and democratic — and it still commanded a significant reservoir of public sympathy. Many in the Party felt that now, with the McCarthy era over and gone, it would be possible to recruit members to a revitalized revolutionary democratic Socialist Party. By this time, the Communist Party had lost a number of members over its uncritical allegiance to the Soviet government, and these comrades were among those the Party actively attempted to recruit. In addition, unity discussions were launched with two groups believed to be friendly: the Jewish Labor Bund and the Independent Socialist League.  The Bund is an international organization of anti-Zionist, non-religious, democratic socialist Jews. The ISL was a Trotskyist splinter group founded and led by Max Shachtman, with about 400 members.

In 1958 the ISL dissolved, and its members joined the SP-SDF. This ended any hope of further mergers, since Shachtman’s intention was to take control of the Socialist Party. Almost at once, a faction fight erupted over the concept of “Realignment.” Shachtman and his lieutenant, Michael Harrington, argued that what America needed wasn’t a third party, but a meaningful second party. The Realignment supporters said that in sixty years the Socialist Party had failed to bring labor into the Party, and in fact kept losing their labor sympathizers (such as the Reuther brothers) because they saw they could do more withian the Democratic Party. It was also argued that, in view of restricted ballot access, the Democratic primaries were a better forum for electoral activity than Socialist candidacies. But the basic argument was an appeal to traditional Marxism: Labor is the motor for social change, labor will not come to the Socialist Party, therefore the Socialist Party must go to labor — which means going into the Democratic Party.

Many of those who later would form the Debs Caucus initially bought this reasoning, but they understood it to mean that, when becoming active in the Democratic Party, one should do so openly as a Socialist. The suppression of Socialist identity was no part of the thinking of the bulk of the membership. From its inception, the Socialist Party had opposed anything that smacked of manipulative politics, seeing it as directly contradictory to the goal of raising the consciousness and self-confidence of the working class.

There is no doubt that the realignment strategy was successful within its own terms.

Former SP labor people like A. Philip Randolph rejoined the Party, and many new people of this type were recruited during this period. But to many Socialists, Realignment in practice turned out to be something they could not stomach. The realignment strategy focused on getting hold of power, and Socialist politics is concerned not only with winning power within the status quo but also with redistributing it to build a new society. Furthermore, the result of the strategy was often to tone down everything that distinguished Socialists from liberals, and “where labor is” turned out to be not at the left of the Democratic Party but at the center, in alliance with the big city machines.

There were several other significant developments in the early 1960s. First, the merger with the Jewish Labor Bund failed to take place, partly because of the growing conservatism of the SP, and partly over the issue of Israel. The Bund wanted veto rights over SP policy on Israel, particularly in view of the unqualified support given by that nation by the Shachtmanites, and the SP tradition was against granting any such right.

Second, and perhaps crucial, was the defection of most of the youth section. The Young People’s Socialist League had always been to the left of the Party as a whole; after the ISL merger, which also brought in the ISL’s youth section, the YSL, the same conflicts developed in YPSL as in the Party. In the early 1960s, a group of left YPSLs obtained control of the Students for a Democratic Society, the youth section of the League for Industrial Democracy, and then disaffiliated it from the LID. At the 1963 YPSL Convention, the left held an overwhelming majority. They held views that were intolerable to the SP leadership, in particular the perspective that the CP had broken up into competing sects and was no longer a monolithic enemy, and that Leninist groups could be worked with. That convention formally dissolved the YPSL. SDS, now deprived of contact with sympathetic older comrades in the SP, made a series of errors and later disintegrated

Third, the ISL merger brought in a number of members who did not agree with the original Shachtmanite-Harrington Realignment theology, who found allies among the old SP membership. Starting in Berkeley, under the leadership of Hal Draper, a number of “Independent Socialist Clubs” came into existence, in many places replacing the Socialist Party locals. For several years, the ISC leadership included SP members, but as time passed more and more of them left the SP.

Fourth, there was constant attrition as left Socialists found they could not tolerate the rightward drift of the SP leadership. This accelerated when the first Vietnam war protests failed to receive any official SP support, even though many members, including Norman Thomas, participated in them.

Dissent and Division (1968-1973)

At the 1968 Socialist Party National Convention, the Shachtman-Harrington Caucus held a clear majority, though a slim one, and voted down resolutions demanding American withdrawal from Vietnam and urging independent political action. They passed a resolution endorsing Hubert Humphrey — a resolution which Norman Thomas, who had less than six months to live, opposed as best he could from his hospital bed, pleading in vain with the membership to reject it. They elected a clear majority of the Party’s National Committee, and installed their own supporters as National Secretary and Editor of the Party paper.

During the Convention itself, knowing themselves defeated, the left wing organized itself as a caucus and proceeded to hire a secretary, start a newspaper, and make plans to hold conferences. At its first conference, it took the name Debs Caucus, and continued to function under that name for nearly five years. The Debs Caucus had a valid claim to recognition as a voice of Socialism, for it included the former National Chairman, Darlington Hoopes, the Socialist ex-Mayor of Milwaukee, Frank Zeidler, and many of the state and local SP organizations, including Wisconsin, Illinois, California, and locals in Philadelphia, Washington DC, and New York City.

At the riotous Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, Realignment Socialists were present as delegates, and Bayard Rustin, having lost his old pacifist and radical orientation, effectively served as a Black floor manager for Humphrey. At the same time, many Debs Caucus members were in the streets with the demonstrators.

By 1970, with Michael Harrington as National Chairman, under Max Shachtman’s leadership, the Socialist Party was showing a growing tendency toward a Stalinist “democratic centralism” in practice. The Party newspaper was effectively closed to all but official views, and the members of the Debs Caucus were treated as non-persons. While Harrington was known to personally disapprove of the war in Vietnam, he could not bring himself to support the demand — now virtually unanimous on the American left — for unconditional immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces. Since this meant the Socialist Party was completely isolated from the anti-war movement, as well as from the so-called “New Left,” it was virtually the only left party in the country that did not experience a major upsurge in membership during this period.

Nevertheless, Harrington maintained contacts with the liberal wing of the peace movement (such as SANE), and he and his personal followers formed yet a third caucus, the Coalition Caucus, to pursue the Realignment strategy within the more liberal sectors of the Democratic Party and the labor leadership. In March 1972, a Unity Convention was held to finalize the merger of the Socialist Party with the Democratic Socialist Federation. The tightly disciplined Unity Caucus, as the Shachtmanite wing now styled themselves, were by now suspicious of Harrington, and succeeded in pushing through the Convention a constitutional amendment providing for a “troika” in the Chairmanship. The “troika” was made up of Harrington, Charles Zimmerman of the DSF, and the aging former civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. A resolution opposing the Vietnam war, which was supported by six Party Locals and by both the Debs Caucus and the Coalition Caucus, failed.

In the 1972 Presidential election the division in the Socialist Party came to a head. In the Democratic primaries, the Shachtmanites supported Henry Jackson, a hawk and a strong supporter of Israel (the latter having become a litmus test for the Shachtmanites). During the campaign itself, they took a neutral position between McGovern and Nixon, following the lead of the AFL-CIO. Harrington and his Coalition Caucus supported McGovern throughout. Most of the Debs Caucus members supported Benjamin Spock, candidate of the People’s Party (Frank Zeidler was Spock’s “shadow cabinet” Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare).

At the end of 1972, the Socialist Party, now completely under control of the right wing, changed its name to Social Democrats USA. This lit the fuse for the disaffiliation of many of the states and locals within the Debs Caucus, and for many resignations. Early in 1973, the Socialist Party of Wisconsin, with the support of the California and Illinois Parties, called a “National Convention of the Socialist Party,” to be held Memorial Day weekend in Milwaukee The Debs Caucus had recently organized a Union for Democratic Socialism, as an “umbrella” organization of both members and non-members of the Socialist Party, and the UDS now made plans for a major conference on “The Future of Democratic Socialism in America” to be held at the same time. The resulting body voted to reconstitute the Socialist Party USA.

Michael Harrington resigned from SDUSA at this time, but he took no part in the reconstituted SPUSA. In October 1973, he and his followers founded the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, now the Democratic Socialists of America (after merging with the New American Movement in 1982). They have generally functioned as a socialist faction within the liberal wings of the Democratic Party and of the leadership of the AFL-CIO; some of their members have won office running as Democrats.

Building Anew (1973-Present)

Since 1973, the Socialist Party USA has focused its attention more on grassroots and local politics, and has dealt with the controversial issue of presidential politics on a case-by-case basis. Due to America’s restrictive and often undemocratic ballot access laws (which have made it almost impossible to break the two-party monopoly on national politics), the party views the races primarily as opportunities for educating the public about socialism and the need for electoral democracy in the U.S.

In 1976, the Socialist Party USA ran a presidential campaign for the first time in 20 years; the candidates were Frank P. Zeidler, former Mayor of Milwaukee, for President and J. Quinn Brisben, a Chicago school teacher, for Vice President.  In 1980 the Socialist ticket was David McReynolds, a pacifist on the staff of the War Resisters League, and Sister Diane Drufenbrock of the Order of St. Francis. One outcome of that campaign was the Party’s recognition by the FEC as a political party nationwide in scope. In 1984 there was an ill-fated attempt to form a coalition with the Citizen’s Party; when it failed the time was too late to mount a Socialist Party campaign. In 1988, the party chose again to nominate a Presidential slate. Willa Kenoyer, a journalist, and Ron Ehrenreich, a credit union officer and university lecturer, were chosen as the candidates for President and Vice President. In 1992, the SP nominated J. Quinn Brisben for President and union organizer Bill Edwards for Vice President. Sadly, Edwards died suddenly during the race, whereupon the Party chose author and playwright Barbara Garson as the new Vice Presidential candidate.

In 1996, the SP nominated activist and special education teacher Mary Cal Hollis for President and author and economics professor Eric Chester for Vice-President. Due in part to frustration with the free-trade and anti-labor successes of Democratic President Bill Clinton, the end of the Cold War and the advent of the Internet, this election saw an influx of newer, younger members. This wave of new activists brought the party to a size and level of activity not seen since before “Realignment.”

As the Socialist Party USA celebrates over 100 years in struggle, new members and activists are coming on board to help build a new vision of democratic socialism for the 21st century. Our recent electoral efforts have involved running our own candidates at the presidential, congressional, state, and community level (Karen Kubby, Socialist councilwoman in Iowa, won her re-election bid in 1992 with the highest vote total in Iowa City history). The SP is slowly but surely regaining “party” status in states across the country.

We know it’s not easy, but it never has been. And just think, without us, things would only be worse. The struggle continues, and if you see yourself as part of that struggle, for socialism and democracy in our time, we invite you to join us.