History of the socialist movement in the United States

Socialism in the United States began with utopian communities in the early 19th century such as the Shakers, the activist visionary Josiah Warren and intentional communities inspired by Charles Fourier. Labor activists—usually British, German, or Jewish immigrants—founded the Socialist Labor Party in 1877. The Socialist Party of America was established in 1901. By that time, anarchism also established itself around the country while socialists of different tendencies were involved in early American labor organizations and struggles which reached a high point in the Haymarket affair in Chicago which started International Workers' Day as the main workers holiday around the world (except in the United States, which celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday of September) and making the 8-hour day a worldwide objective by workers organizations and socialist parties worldwide.[1]

Under Socialist Party of America presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, socialist opposition to World War I led to the governmental repression collectively known as the First Red Scare. The Socialist Party declined in the 1920s, but nonetheless often ran Norman Thomas for President. In the 1930s, the Communist Party USA took importance in labor and racial struggles while it suffered a split which converged in the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. In the 1950s, socialism was affected by McCarthyism and in the 1960s it was revived by the general radicalization brought by the New Left and other social struggles and revolts. In the 1960s, Michael Harrington and other socialists were called to assist the Kennedy administration and then the Johnson administration's War on Poverty and Great Society[2] while socialists also played important roles in the Civil Rights Movement.[3][4][5][6] Socialism in the United States has been composed of many tendencies, often in important disagreements with each other; it has included utopian socialists, social democrats, democratic socialists, communists, Trotskyists and anarchists.

The socialist movement in the United States has historically been relatively weak. Unlike socialist parties in Europe, Canada and Oceania, a major social democratic party never materialized in the United States[7] and the socialist movement remains marginal, "almost unique in its powerlessness among the Western democracies".[8] In the United States, socialism "brings considerable stigma, in large part for its association with authoritarian communist regimes".[9] A June 2015 Gallup poll revealed that 47% of respondents would vote for a socialist President while 50% would not. Willingness to vote for a socialist President was 59% among Democrats, 49% among independents and 26% among Republicans.[10] An October 2015 poll found that 49% of Democrats had a favorable view of socialism compared to 37% for capitalism.[11] According to a 2013 article in The Guardian: "Contrary to popular belief, Americans don't have an innate allergy to socialism. Milwaukee has had several socialist mayors (Frank Zeidler, Emil Seidel, and Daniel Hoan). In 1920, Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs won nearly 1m [million] votes".[12]

19th century

American utopian socialism and utopian communities

New Harmony as envisioned by Owen

Utopian socialism was the American first socialist movement. Utopians attempted to develop model socialist societies to demonstrate the virtues of their brand of beliefs. Most utopian socialist ideas originated in Europe, but the United States was most often the site for the experiments themselves. Many utopian experiments occurred in the 19th century as part of this movement, including Brook Farm, the New Harmony, the Shakers, the Amana Colonies, the Oneida Community, The Icarians, Bishop Hill Commune, Aurora, Oregon and Bethel, Missouri.

Robert Owen, a wealthy Welsh industrialist, turned to social reform and socialism and in 1825 founded a communitarian colony called New Harmony in southwestern Indiana. The group fell apart in 1829, mostly due to conflict between utopian ideologues and non-ideological pioneers. In 1841, transcendentalist utopians founded Brook Farm, a community based on Frenchman Charles Fourier's brand of socialism. Both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson were members of the short-lived community. The group had trouble reaching financial stability and many members left as their leader George Ripley turned more and more to Fourier's doctrine. All hope for its survival was lost when the expensive, Fourier-inspired main building burnt down while under construction. The community dissolved in 1847.

The North American Phalanx

Fourierists also attempted to establish a community in Monmouth County, New Jersey. The North American Phalanx community built a Phalanstère—Fourier's concept of a communal-living structure—out of two farmhouses and an addition that linked the two. The community lasted from 1844 to 1856, when a fire destroyed the community's flour and saw-mills and several workshops. The community had already begun to decline after an ideological schism in 1853. French socialist Étienne Cabet, frustrated in Europe, sought to use his Icarian movement to replace capitalist production with workers cooperatives. He became the most popular socialist advocate of his day, with a special appeal to English artisans were being undercut by factories. In the 1840s, Cabet led groups of emigrants to found utopian communities in Texas and Illinois. However, his work was undercut by his many feuds with his own followers.[13]

Utopian socialism reached the national level fictionally in Edward Bellamy's 1888 novel Looking Backward, a utopian depiction of a socialist United States in the year 2000. The book sold millions of copies and became one of the best-selling American books of the nineteenth century. By one estimation, only Uncle Tom's Cabin surpassed it in sales.[14] The book sparked a following of Bellamy Clubs and influenced socialist and labor leaders, including Eugene V. Debs.[15] Likewise, Upton Sinclair's masterpiece The Jungle was first published in the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, criticized capitalism as being oppressive and exploitative to meatpacking workers in the industrial food system. The book is still widely referred to today as one of the most influential works of literature in modern history.

Josiah Warren is widely regarded as the first American anarchist[16] and the four-page weekly paper he edited during 1833, The Peaceful Revolutionist, was the first anarchist periodical published.[17] Warren, a follower of Robert Owen, joined Owen's community at New Harmony, Indiana. He coined the phrase "Cost the limit of price", with "cost" here referring not to monetary price paid but the labor one exerted to produce an item.[18] Therefore, "[h]e proposed a system to pay people with certificates indicating how many hours of work they did. They could exchange the notes at local time stores for goods that took the same amount of time to produce".[16] He put his theories to the test by establishing an experimental "labor for labor store" called the Cincinnati Time Store where trade was facilitated by notes backed by a promise to perform labor. The store proved successful and operated for three years, after which it was closed so that Warren could pursue establishing colonies based on mutualism. These included "Utopia" and "Modern Times". Warren said that Stephen Pearl Andrews' The Science of Society, published in 1852, was the most lucid and complete exposition of Warren's own theories.[19] For American anarchist historian Eunice Minette Schuster: "It is apparent [...] that Proudhonian Anarchism was to be found in the United States at least as early as 1848 and that it was not conscious of its affinity to the Individualist Anarchism of Josiah Warren and Stephen Pearl Andrews [...] William B. Greene presented this Proudhonian Mutualism in its purest and most systematic form".[20]

American anarchist Benjamin Tucker wrote in Individual Liberty:

Early American socialism

German Marxist immigrants who arrived in the United States after the 1848 revolutions in Europe brought socialist ideas with them.[22] Joseph Weydemeyer, a German colleague of Karl Marx who sought refuge in New York in 1851 following the 1848 revolutions, established the first Marxist journal in the United States, Die Revolution, but It folded after two issues. In 1852, he established the Proletarierbund, which would become the American Workers' League, the first Marxist organization in the United States, but it too proved short-lived, having failed to attract a native English-speaking membership.[23] In 1866, William H. Sylvis formed the National Labor Union (NLU). Frederich Albert Sorge, a German who had found refuge in New York following the 1848 revolutions, took Local No. 5 of the NLU into the First International as Section One in the United States. By 1872, there were 22 sections, which held a convention in New York. The General Council of the International moved to New York with Sorge as General Secretary, but following internal conflict it dissolved in 1876.[24]

A larger wave of German immigrants followed in the 1870s and 1880s, including social democratic followers of Ferdinand Lasalle. Lasalle regarded state aid through political action as the road to revolution and opposed trade unionism, which he saw as futile, believing that according to the iron law of wages employers would only pay subsistence wages. The Lasalleans formed the Social Democratic Party of North America in 1874 and both Marxists and Lasalleans formed the Workingmen's Party of the United States in 1876. When the Lasalleans gained control in 1877, they changed the name to the Socialist Labor Party of America (SLP). However, many socialists abandoned political action altogether and moved to trade unionism. Two former socialists, Adolph Strasser and Samuel Gompers, formed the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886.[22]

The Socialist Labor Party (SLP) was officially founded in 1876 at a convention in Newark, New Jersey. The party was made up overwhelmingly of German immigrants, who had brought Marxist ideals with them to North America. So strong was the heritage that the official party language was German for the first three years. In its nascent years, the party encompassed a broad range of various socialist philosophies, with differing concepts of how to achieve their goals. Nevertheless, there was a militia—the Lehr und Wehr Verein—affiliated to the party. When the SLP reorganised as a Marxist party in 1890, its philosophy solidified and its influence quickly grew and by around the start of the 20th century the SLP was the foremost American socialist party.

Bringing to light the resemblance of the American party's politics to those of Lassalle, Daniel De Leon emerged as an early leader of the Socialist Labor Party. He also adamantly supported unions, but criticized the collective bargaining movement within the United States at the time, favoring a slightly different approach.[a] The resulting disagreement between De Leon's supporters and detractors within the party led to an early schism. De Leon's opponents, led by Morris Hillquit, left the Socialist Labor Party in 1901 as they fused with Eugene V. Debs's Social Democratic Party and formed the Socialist Party of America.

As a leader within the socialist movement, Debs movement quickly gained national recognition as a charismatic orator. He was often inflammatory and controversial, but also strikingly modest and inspiring. He once said: "I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else [...] You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition". Debs lent a great and powerful air to the revolution with his speaking: "There was almost a religious fervor to the movement, as in the eloquence of Debs".[25]

The Socialist movement became coherent and energized under Debs. It included "scores of former Populists, militant miners, and blacklisted railroad workers, who were [...] inspired by occasional visits from national figures like Eugene V. Debs".[26]

The first socialist to hold public office in the United States was Fred C. Haack, the owner of a shoe store in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Haack was elected to the city council in 1897 as a member of the Populist Party, but soon became a socialist following the organization of Social Democrats in Sheboygan. He was re-elected alderman in 1898 on the Socialist ticket, along with August L. Mohr, a local baseball manager. Haack served on the city council for sixteen years, advocating for the building of schools and public ownership of utilities. He was recognized as the first socialist officeholder in the United States at the 1932 national Socialist Party convention held in Milwaukee.[27][28]

Generally accepted[by whom?] as the first general strike in the United States, the 1877 St. Louis general strike grew out of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. The general strike was largely organized by the Knights of Labor and the Marxist-leaning Workingmen's Party, the main radical political party of the era. When the railroad strike reached East St. Louis, Illinois in July 1877, the St. Louis Workingman's Party led a group of approximately 500 people across the river in an act of solidarity with the nearly 1,000 workers on strike.[29]

Socialism's ties to labor

Socialists in Union Square, N.Y.C. on May 1, 1912

The Socialist Party formed strong alliances with a number of labor organizations because of their similar goals. In an attempt to rebel against the abuses of corporations, workers had found a solution—or so they thought—in a technique of collective bargaining. By banding together into "unions" and by refusing to work, or "striking", workers would halt production at a plant or in a mine, forcing management to meet their demands. From Daniel De Leon's early proposal to organize unions with a socialist purpose, the two movements became closely tied. They shared as one major ideal the spirit of collectivism—both in the socialist platform and in the idea of collective bargaining.

The most prominent American unions of the time included the American Federation of Labor, the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In 1869 or 1870, Uriah S. Stephens founded the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, employing secrecy and fostering a semireligious aura to "create a sense of solidarity".[30] The Knights comprised in essence "one big union of all workers".[31] In 1886, a convention of delegates from twenty separate unions formed the American Federation of Labor, with Samuel Gompers as its head. It peaked[when?] at 4 million members. The IWW (or "Wobblies") formed along the same lines as the Knights to become one big union. The IWW found early supporters in De Leon and in Debs.

The socialist movement was able to gain strength from its ties to labor. "The [economic] panic of 1907, as well as the growing strength of the Socialists, Wobblies, and trade unions, speeded up the process of reform".[32] However, corporations sought to protect their profits and took steps against unions and strikers. They hired strikebreakers and pressured government to call in the national militia when workers refused to do their jobs. A number of strikes dissolved into violent confrontations.

Artist's depiction of the Haymarket Square riot

In May 1886, the Knights of Labor were demonstrating in the Haymarket Square in Chicago, demanding an eight-hour day in all trades. When police arrived, an unknown person threw a bomb into the crowd, killing one person and injuring several others. "In a trial marked by prejudice and hysteria", a court sentenced seven anarchists, six of them German-speaking, to death—with no evidence linking them to the bomb.[33]

Strikes also took place that same month (May 1886) in other cities, including in Milwaukee, where seven people died when Wisconsin Governor Jeremiah M. Rusk ordered state militia troops to fire upon thousands of striking workers who had marched to the Milwaukee Iron Works Rolling Mill in Bay View on Milwaukee's south side.

In early 1894, a dispute broke out between George Pullman and his employees. Debs, then leader of the American Railway Union, organized a strike. United States Attorney General Olney and President Grover Cleveland took the matter to court and were granted several injunctions preventing railroad workers from "interfering with interstate commerce and the mails".[34] The judiciary of the time denied the legitimacy of strikers. Said one judge, "[neither] the weapon of the insurrectionist, nor the inflamed tongue of him who incites fire and sword is the instrument to bring about reforms".[34] This was the first sign of a clash between the government and socialist ideals.

In 1914, one of the most bitter labor conflicts in American history took place at a mining colony in Colorado called Ludlow. After workers went on strike in September 1913 with grievances ranging from requests for an eight-hour day to allegations of subjugation, Colorado governor Elias Ammons called in the National Guard in October 1913. That winter, Guardsmen made 172 arrests.[b][35]

The strikers began to fight back, killing four mine guards and firing into a separate camp where strikebreakers lived. When the body of a strikebreaker was found nearby, the National Guard's General Chase ordered the tent colony destroyed in retaliation.[35]

"On Monday morning, April 20, two dynamite bombs were exploded, in the hills above Ludlow [...] a signal for operations to begin. At 9 am a machine gun began firing into the tents [where strikers were living], and then others joined",[35] one eyewitness reported as "[t]he soldiers and mine guards tried to kill everybody; anything they saw move".[35] That night, the National Guard rode down from the hills surrounding Ludlow and set fire to the tents. Twenty-six people, including two women and eleven children, were killed.[36]

Union members now feared to strike. The military, which saw strikers as dangerous insurgents, intimidated and threatened them. These attitudes compounded with a public backlash against anarchists and radicals. As public opinion of strikes and of unions soured, the socialists often appeared guilty by association. They were lumped together[by whom?] with strikers and anarchists under a blanket of public distrust.

Early American anarchism

Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, prominent anarcho-communists (photo circa 1917–1919)

The American anarchist Benjamin Tucker (1854–1939) focused on economics, advocating "Anarchistic-Socialism"[37] and adhering to the mutualist economics of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Josiah Warren while publishing his eclectic influential publication Liberty. Lysander Spooner (1808–1887), besides his individualist anarchist activism, was also an important anti-slavery activist and became a member of the First International.[38] Two individualist anarchists who wrote in Benjamin Tucker´s Liberty were also important labor organizers of the time. Joseph Labadie was an American labor organizer, individualist anarchist, social activist, printer, publisher, essayist and poet. Without the oppression of the state, Labadie believed, humans would choose to harmonize with "the great natural laws...without robbing [their] fellows through interest, profit, rent and taxes". However, he supported community cooperation as he supported community control of water utilities, streets and railroads.[39] Although he did not support the militant anarchism of the Haymarket anarchists, he fought for clemency for the accused because he did not believe they were the perpetrators. In 1888, Labadie organized the Michigan Federation of Labor, became its first president and forged an alliance with Samuel Gompers.[39] Dyer Lum was a 19th-century American individualist anarchist labor activist and poet.[40] A leading anarcho-syndicalist and a prominent left-wing intellectual of the 1880s,[41] he is remembered[by whom?] as the lover and mentor of early anarcha-feminist Voltairine de Cleyre.[42] Lum wrote prolifically, producing a number of key anarchist texts and contributed to publications including Mother Earth, Twentieth Century, Liberty (Tucker's individualist anarchist journal), The Alarm (the journal of the International Working People's Association) and The Open Court among others. He developed a "mutualist" theory of unions and as such was active within the Knights of Labor and later promoted anti-political strategies in the American Federation of Labor. Frustration with abolitionism, spiritualism and labor reform caused Lum to embrace anarchism and to radicalize workers, as he came to believe that revolution would inevitably involve a violent struggle between the working class and the employing class.[42] Convinced of the necessity of violence to enact social change, he volunteered to fight in the American Civil War of 1861–1865, hoping thereby to bring about the end of slavery.[42]

By the 1880s, anarcho-communism had reached the United States as can be seen in the publication of the journal Freedom: A Revolutionary Anarchist-Communist Monthly by Lucy Parsons and Lizzy Holmes.[43] Parsons debated in her time in the United States with fellow anarcha-communist Emma Goldman over issues of free love and feminism.[43] Another anarcho-communist journal, The Firebrand, later appeared in the United States. Most anarchist publications in the United States were in Yiddish, German, or Russian, but Free Society was published in English, permitting the dissemination of anarchist communist thought to English-speaking populations in the United States.[44] Around that time,[when?] these American anarcho-communist sectors entered into debate with the individualist anarchist faction led by Tucker.[45] In February 1888, Berkman left his native Russia for the United States.[46] Soon after his arrival in New York City, Berkman became an anarchist through his involvement with groups that had formed to campaign to free the men convicted of the 1886 Haymarket bombing.[47] Berkman and Goldman soon came under the influence of Johann Most, the best-known anarchist in the United States and an advocate of propaganda of the deedattentat, or violence carried out to encourage the masses to revolt.[48][49][50] Berkman became a typesetter for Most's newspaper Freiheit.[47]