Timeframe: 1901 - 1901
The industrial conditions in the United States, the constantly changing frontier, and the lack of class stratification had prevented the development of a strong socialist movement in the United States. However, in the late 1860’s and early 1790s, a number of branches of the First International were formed in the East, and on July 4, 1874, a Social Democratic Workingmen’s Party of North America was organized with a rather indefinite Socialist platform, becoming in 1877 the Socialist Labor Party.
The Socialist Labor Party showed much activity during the next two decades, but the attempt of its leader, Daniel De Leon, to impose too rigid a discipline upon its membership and his bitter opposition to leaders of organized labor led to a split in the party. The dissident group, under Morris Hillquit and others, joined in 1900 with the midwestern Socialists in nominating Eugene Victor Debs for president.
This was followed by a Unity Conference in 1901 at a 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 Socialist Democratic 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.
From the beginning the Socialist Party was the ecumenical organization for American radicals, including 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. In 1916, Eugene Debs refused to run again for a candidacy, so by referendum, Allan L. Benson was chosen as the Socialist nominee for presidency.
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 Lenin's demand for unconditional allegiance to the Third International left, to form the Communist Party and the Communist Labor Party. However, the two parties later merged.
The Socialist Party did not run a Presidential candidate in 1924, but joined the American Federation of Labor 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% of that of 1932. The outbreak of the war against Fascism and the wartime prosperity further weakened all parties on the left.
The Socialist Party was down to about 2,000 members after the war, 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. 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. The Independent Socialist League was a Trotskyite 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 attain 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 within 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.
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.
At the 1968 Socialist Party 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.
At the riotous Democratic Party Convention in Chicago in 1968, Realignment Socialists were present as delegates, and Bayard Rustin, having lost his old pacifist and radical orientation, served in effect 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 democratic centralism in practice. Nevertheless, Harrington maintained contacts with the liberal wing of the peace movement 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 of 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.
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