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An economic and social theory that seeks to maximize wealth and opportunity for all people through public ownership and control of industries and social services.
The general goal of socialism is to maximize wealth and opportunity, or to minimize human suffering, through public control of industry and social services. Socialism is an alternative to capitalism, where the means and profits of production are privately held. Socialism became a strong international movement in the early nineteenth century as the Industrial Revolution brought great changes to production methods and capacities and led to a decline in working conditions. Socialist writers and agitators in the United States helped fuel the labor movement but were often branded as radicals and jailed under a variety of laws that punished attempts to overthrow the government. Although government programs such as Social Security and Welfare incorporate some socialist tenets, socialism has never posed a serious challenge to capitalism in the United States.
One of the early forms of socialism was the communitarian movement, popularized by the brothers George and Frederick Evans, who came to New York from England in 1820. Communitarianism, which was based on the ideals of the French theorists jean-jacques rousseau and François-Noël Babeuf, involved the pursuit of utopian living in small cooperative communities. Cooperative living gained greater popularity under the utopian socialists, such as the Welsh industrialist Robert Owen and the French philosopher Charles Fourier. Owen's followers established a self-sufficient utopian community in New Harmony, Indiana, in 1825 and Fourier's followers did the same in the 1830s and 1840s on the east coast. Both of these efforts failed, however.
In 1848, the German philosophers karl marx and Friedrich Engels introduced scientific socialism with their extremely influential work, the Communist Manifesto. Scientific socialism became the definitive ideology of a second, more powerful phase of socialism. Scientific socialism applied the dialectic method of the German philosopher georg hegel to the political and social spheres. Using discussion and reasoning as a form of intellectual investigation, Marx and Engels identified a historical progression in human society from Slavery to Feudalism and finally to capitalism.
Under capitalism—defined as a global system based on technology transcending national boundaries—society was divided into two components: the bourgeoisie, who owned the methods of production, and the proletariat, the laborers who operated the production facilities to produce goods. Marx and Engels predicted the disappearance of the middle class and ultimately a revolution as the vast proletariat wrested the methods of production from the control of the small bourgeoisie elite. This revolution would usher in an era when resources were owned by the people as a whole and markets were subject to cooperative administration.
The Communist Manifesto made less of an impact in the United States than in Europe, in part because the nation's attention was focused on the issue of slavery and the growing division between the North and South. When these tensions escalated into the Civil War, a great increase in industrialization led to the emergence of socialist labor organizations. At the same time, political Refugees from Europe contributed socialist theories to labor and political movements. In 1866, socialists who had been heavily influenced by German immigrants helped create the National Labor Union. Their efforts led to an 1868 statute (15 Stat. 77) establishing the eight-hour day for federal government workers; however, it went ignored and unenforced. The National Labor Union disappeared a few years after the death of its founder, William Sylvis, in 1869, but the ties between labor and socialism remained.
As socialists across Europe and the United States debated and extrapolated on Marx's initial definitions and their application under widely varying conditions, socialism gradually divided into three major philosophies: revisionism, Anarchism, and bolshevism. Revisionist socialism promoted gradual reform, compromise, and nonviolence. Initially, "reform" meant the nationalization of state and local public works and large-scale industries. Dedicated to democratic ideals, revisionists believed they could achieve civilized progress and higher consciousness through economic justice and complete equality.
Anarchic socialism, best exemplified by the Russian Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876), sought the Abolition of both property and the state. Under anarchic socialism society would be composed of small collectives of producers, distributors, and consumers. Anarchism reflected the desire of the dispossessed to eliminate bourgeois institutions altogether. Like its contemporary syndicalism in France, anarchic socialism sought the immediate implementation of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Bolshevism advocated the use of a select revolutionary cadre to seize control of the state. Bolshevists asserted that this cadre was needed to raise the consciousness of the proletariat and move toward a socialist future through absolute dictatorship. Their preferred method of redistributing wealth and resources was authoritarian collectivism, commonly known as Communism. Under authoritarian collectivism the state would own and distribute all goods and services. In envisioning this role for the state, the Bolshevists rejected both classical and theoretical socialism. Their only tie to classical socialism, besides the rhetorical one, was their view of the state as having a role in ameliorating the suffering brought about by industrial capitalism.
The Knights of Labor, which was formed in 1871 in Philadelphia, became the first truly national and broadly inclusive union in the United States. Revisionists worked within this union and other labor and third-party groups, often in leadership roles, to achieve definable goals that would culminate in a socialist state. Preaching reform, education, and cooperation, the union grew in numbers until 1886. In May of that year, during a strike sanctioned by the Knights against the McCormick Harvester plant in Chicago, an unknown person threw a bomb into the ranks of police sent to disperse a public gathering organized by anarchist socialists. The Haymarket Riot, as it became known, set the stage for the first Red Scare in U.S. history. Eight anarchist leaders were charged with murder on the basis of speech defined as conspiracy. The use of a judge-selected jury and his instructions to them led to the conviction of the anarchists, four of whom were sentenced to death and hanged. The U.S. Supreme Court could find no principle of federal law to review the case.
The reaction that followed the riot signaled the end of anarchism as a force in U.S. politics. It was also the end of the first phase of inclusive, or industrial unionism, as opposed to trade unions. Under the pressure of economic downturns, factionalization, and the stigma of being affiliated with anarchists, the Knights of Labor declined into a negligible force.
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, the revisionists attempted to unionize various companies, including Andrew Carnegie's Homestead Steel in 1892. Private armies and the Pennsylvania state militia were used to break up the strike. In 1894, eugene v. debs (1855–1926), head of the American Railway Union (ARU), organized a strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company. The sherman anti-trust act of 1890, ostensibly passed to curb the accelerating trend of monopolization, was used to stop the ARU strike. When the ARU ignored the Injunction granted under authority of the act, Debs was sentenced to six months in prison for Contempt of court. On appeal the sentence was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564, 15 S. Ct. 900, 39 L. Ed. 1092 (1895).
Despite this setback, Debs had proven himself to be a significant leader and orator. As such, he took a key role in the U.S. socialist movement. In 1897, he formed the Social Democratic Party. In 1905, Debs moved more to the left, and with william d. "big bill" haywood and Mary Harris "Mother" Jones he co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World. The "Wobblies," as they were called, represented the legacy of direct action advocated by the earlier anarchists.
In the early twentieth century, socialists called for changes to currency and taxation, an eight-hour day, an end to adulteration of food, more attention to product safety, improved working conditions, urban sanitation, and relief for the poor and homeless. Congress took notice of these demands and passed various laws granting the government the authority to regulate industry. Socialism peaked in 1912, when Debs garnered six percent of the popular vote in the presidential election.
The Supreme Court, however, was slow to recognize workers' rights and government regulation of industry. The Court repeatedly struck down state laws restricting the number of hours that women and children could work on the ground that the laws violated the doctrine of liberty of contract. In 1910, the first real antitrust victory came when the Court forced Standard Oil to divest itself of some of its operations. The ruling, however, was limited in scope (Standard Oil v. United States, 221 U.S. 1, 31 S. Ct. 502).
During World War I (1914–1918) socialism faced new setbacks in the United States as federal legislation was passed outlawing any acts of disloyalty toward U.S. war efforts. The Espionage Act of 1917 (codified in scattered sections of 22 and 50 U.S.C.A.) imposed sentences of up to 20 years in prison for anyone found guilty of aiding the enemy, interfering with the recruitment of soldiers, or in any way encouraging disloyalty. The act was also used to prevent socialist literature from being sent through the mail. Many socialists were imprisoned for anti-war activities and the Wobblies, in particular, were main targets. Debs was jailed again, this time for interfering with military recruitment in violation of the Espionage Act. Again the Supreme Court upheld the conviction (Debs v. United States, 249 U.S. 211, 39 S. Ct. 252, 63 L. Ed. 566 ).
After World War I democratic socialists came into power, alone or as part of coalition governments, in Germany, France, Great Britain, and Sweden. They all faced the problem of how to make socialist principles viable within a capitalist system. Only in Sweden, and only after a lengthy conflict, were labor and capital able to cooperate to establish a socialist system without abandoning socialism's philosophic foundation.
In the United States, socialists faced another wave of repression during the strikes that erupted after the war. The Russian Revolution of 1917 had aroused new fears of Bolshevism, which led to greater intolerance. Under the auspices of the Justice Department, Attorney General A. mitchell palmer conducted raids against individuals and organizations considered a threat to U.S. institutions. The nationwide arrest of dissidents ultimately prompted the Supreme Court to reconsider federal protection of individual rights. Justices oliver wendell holmes jr. and louis d. brandeis argued for greater protection of the right to voice unpopular ideas.
The Great Depression marked another turning point for socialism. Overproduction, under-consumption, and speculation led to an implosion of markets, a result predicted by Marx. One response was powerful centralized governments in the form of totalitarian regimes such as those of Adolf Hitler in Germany and Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union. Socialism was revived by the British economist John Maynard Keynes who advocated that the government stimulate consumption and investment during economic downturns. Previously used only on a limited scale, deficit financing, as it came to be called, was now used by socialists in Europe and liberals in the United States to revive capitalism. Many countries still use Keynesian economics to provide a bridge between capitalism and socialism.
As the Depression deepened from 1929 to 1933, U.S. socialism attracted more adherents, but its influence was still relatively slight. In the 1932 presidential elections, Socialist Party candidate Norman M. Thomas won only 267,000 votes. Increasingly made up of middle-class intellectuals, socialists became isolated from the needs and demands of workers. Socialism's greatest achievement during this period was President franklin d. roosevelt's New Deal program, which expanded government services to help the poor and stimulate economic growth. The Supreme Court, however, struck down much of the New Deal legislation, most notably, the national industrial recovery act (48 Stat. 195) in 1935 (schechter poultry corp. v. united states, 295 U.S. 495, 55 S. Ct. 837, 79 L. Ed. 1570). Only when Roosevelt threatened to enlarge the Court to include justices with his perspective did the Court begin to uphold New Deal legislation.
The year 1935 was marked by success, however, with the passage of the Wagner Act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (29 U.S.C.A. §§ 151 et seq.). The act, which was the first national recognition of labor's right to organize, was the culmination of 80 years of socialist-labor efforts. Ironically, the socialists' message lost its urgency with the broadening of workers' rights and regulatory reform.
Following World War II, and with the coming of the Cold War, politicians and the public began to equate socialism with communism. People with socialist backgrounds, who had been part of the Roosevelt administration, were denied employment, fired, and blacklisted during the late 1940s and 1950s. In 1951, in Dennis v. United States (341 U.S. 494, 71 S. Ct. 857, 95 L. Ed. 1137), the Supreme Court upheld the Smith Act (18 U.S.C.A. § 2385), which had been passed in 1940. The decision established the legality of anti-subversive legislation under the theory that a vast underground horde of communists was working for the violent overthrow of the government.
At the helm of the anti-communist movement was Senator joseph r. mccarthy of Wisconsin, who proclaimed that communists had infiltrated U.S. politics on a broad scale. Meanwhile the House Un-American Activities Committee tried suspects in the popular media, destroying numerous careers in the arts, entertainment, and politics. Only when McCarthy charged that the U.S. Army had been infiltrated by communists and then failed to prove his allegations did his power decline.
By the time the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 2000a et seq.) was passed, socialist precepts had again become acceptable topics of conversation. The remedies that politicians and scholars proposed for urban blight, poverty, and inequitable distribution of wealth drew heavily on the traditional socialist tenet that the state should play a role in alleviating suffering and directing society toward desirable ends. The socialist perspective on the treatment of third-world nations in the transnational capitalist system also influenced protests against the Vietnam War.
After the McCarthy era, however, the organized socialist movement in the United States was in disarray, with membership down and leaders splintering off into various factions. The two major socialist groups to emerge were the right wing Socialist Party USA and the more left-leaning Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). In 1976, the Socialist Party USA ran a candidate in the presidential elections for the first time in 20 years. The party has included a candidate in almost every presidential election since then.
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