Socialist Party of the United States of America

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Socialist Party of the United States of America

The Socialist Party of the United States of America (SP-USA) is one of several parties claiming to be the heir to the country's original organized Socialist movement, the Socialist Labor Party (SLP). Support for the party has fluctuated over the years, but it remains a vigorous advocate of radical change of economic and social policy in the United States.

Originally called the Workingmen's party when it was organized in 1876, the party was renamed in 1877. Most of its members were immigrants from the large industrial U.S. cities. In 1890 Marxist Daniel De Leon joined the SLP and became editor of its newspaper, The People. Under De Leon's leadership the SLP adopted a Marxist view that advocated revolution in order to free workers from the bonds of capitalism. In 1892 the SLP ran Simon Wing as a presidential candidate. The SLP continued to run presidential candidates for many years; however, electoral strength for the party reached a peak in 1898 when the SLP candidate fielded 82,204 votes.

In 1898 Eugene Debs and other veterans of the American Railway Union's national strike against the Pullman Company organized the Socialist Democratic Party (SDP). The majority of SDP members were laborers who had been born in the United States. In 1901 one wing of the SLP merged with Eugene Debs' Social Democratic Party (SDP) at a unity convention in Indianapolis, Indiana. The newly merged Socialist Party of the United States of America was a mix of people harboring moderate to radical views including Marxists, Christians, pro-Zion and anti-Zion Jewish reformers, pacifists, populists, anarchists, and others. The continuing reform versus revolution debate was blunted by the adoption of platforms that envisioned revolution as the ultimate goal, while advocating immediate reform measures, but the party faced continuous internal conflict due to the variety of opinions held by its members.

The Socialist party sought to become a major component of the American political system. Debs ran as the party's presidential candidate in 1908, 1912, and 1920, polling over 915,000 votes in 1920. In 1919 a major ideological divide within the party caused a number of members to split off and form what eventually became the Communist Party of the United States. In 1924 the Socialist party did not field a presidential candidate, but instead it supported the campaign of Senator robert la follette of Wisconsin who ran on the Progressive Party ticket. La Follette polled 5 million popular votes but carried only his home state. The Great Depression of the early 1930s increased support for the Socialist party; its 1932 presidential candidate, Norman Thomas, received 896,000 votes.

After that election the membership and political impact of the Socialist party began to decline. The heterogeneity of views led to conflicts among various party factions, and over the years these factions were subject to numerous splits and mergers. Some members left to join the Communist party because they felt the Socialist agenda was not sufficiently radical. Others became Democrats, theorizing that working with a major political party was the most viable means of achieving reform. In 1976 the Socialist party ran a presidential candidate for the first time in 20 years. Since then the party has fielded presidential candidates in 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2000. In 2000 the presidential candidate, David McReynolds, a peace activist and former party chair, earned ballot status in seven states. Since 1973, the Socialist party has concentrated on grassroots organizing and having an impact on local politics.

Further readings

Fried, Albert., ed. 1992. Socialism in America: From the Shakers to the Third International: A Documentary History. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Gary Marks. 2001. It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States. New York: Norton.

Miller, Timothy. 1998. The Quest for Utopia in Twentieth-Century America: 1900–1960. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse Univ. Press.

Socialist Party of the United States of America. Available online at <sp-usa.org> (accessed August 11, 2003.

Cross-references

Marx, Karl Heinrich; Socialism.

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