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The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History

The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History

by Jack Ross
The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History

The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History

by Jack Ross


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At a time when the word “socialist” is but one of numerous political epithets that are generally divorced from the historical context of America’s political history, The Socialist Party of America presents a new, mature understanding of America’s most important minor political party of the twentieth century. From the party’s origins in the labor and populist movements at the end of the nineteenth century, to its heyday with the charismatic Eugene V. Debs, and to its persistence through the Depression and the Second World War under the steady leadership of “America’s conscience,” Norman Thomas, The Socialist Party of America guides readers through the party’s twilight, ultimate demise, and the successor groups that arose following its collapse.

Based on archival research, Jack Ross’s study challenges the orthodoxies of both sides of the historiographical debate as well as assumptions about the Socialist Party in historical memory. Ross similarly covers the related emergence of neoconservatism and other facets of contemporary American politics and assesses some of the more sensational charges from the right about contemporary liberalism and the “radicalism” of Barack Obama.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612347509
Publisher: Potomac Books
Publication date: 04/15/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 880
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

Jack Ross is a freelance editor and independent historian in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in the American Conservative, Tikkun, the Mitrailleuse, Daily Caller, Mondoweiss, and He is the author of Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism (Potomac, 2011).  

Read an Excerpt

The Socialist Party of America

A Complete History

By Jack Ross


Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61234-750-9


The Roots of American Socialism


It was a curious twist of fate that the founding of the first nationally organized party of Marxian Socialism in the United States took place in essentially the same act as the liquidation of the International Workingmen's Association founded by Karl Marx in 1864. After moving from London to New York in 1872, the First International came under the control of Friedrich Sorge, a German exile from the 1848 revolutions who established the International's American branch in 1867. As the fractious American party began to dominate the International, whose European base was rapidly collapsing, a meeting of ten Americans and one German gathered in Philadelphia on July 15, 1876, to proclaim the following:

The International convention at Philadelphia has abolished the General Council of the International Workingmen's Association, and the external bond of the organization exists no more. "The International is dead!" the bourgeoisie of all countries will again exclaim, and with ridicule and joy it will point to the proceedings of this convention as documentary proof of the defeat of the labor movement of the world. Let us not be influenced by the cry of our enemies! We have abandoned the organization of the International for reasons arising from the present political situation of Europe, but as a compensation for it we see the principles of the organization recognized and defended by the progressive working men of the entire civilized world.

Four days later, Sorge was present at the founding convention of the Workingmen's Party of America in Philadelphia, representing the now-moribund First International in an effort to create a unified party of Socialism in America. This effort was largely instigated by the Social Democratic Workingmen's Party, which split off from the International in 1874 under the influence of Ferdinand LaSalle, the founder of the German Social Democratic Party and critic of Marx. The Social Democratic Workingmen had already absorbed the remnant of the National Labor Union, founded in 1866 to agitate for the eight-hour day, after its disastrous attempt to launch a new political party in 1872. The founders of the Social Democratic Workingmen's Party were the most important leaders of the American labor movement in its turbulent formative years. They included Adolph Strasser, a Hungarian exile who founded the Cigar Makers Union in New York; Peter McGuire, founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters; and Albert Parsons of the Typographical Union in Chicago, a Confederate veteran who fled Texas after agitating for the rights of newly freed African Americans.

J. P. McDonnell, a one-time personal secretary of Karl Marx in London who had led most of the English-speaking members out of the American section of the First International even before its split with the Social Democrats, was named editor of the party's newspaper, Labor Standard. Meeting in the city where the United States declared its independence and in the very month of the centenary of that occasion, the Workingmen's Party of America seemed destined to become a force of history. Though the party could not field a presidential ticket that year, many supporters backed the marginal Greenback Party campaign of Peter Cooper, the pro-labor philanthropist who founded New York's Cooper Union. The election of 1876 would be remembered for the bitterly disputed outcome between Republican Rutherford Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden. The "Great Compromise" of 1877 is often characterized as the concession of the election by the Democrats in exchange for the removal of federal troops from the Southern states, but there were actually very few troops remaining in the South by 1876. The Republicans appealed to the anxiety of the Southern "Bourbon" Democrats that Tilden, a New Yorker who campaigned on a reform platform, would not heed their appeals for federal patronage to rebuild their shattered economy.

More than a generation later, during his tenure at the Socialist Party's Rand School of Social Science, Charles Beard wrote An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, identifying a historic party of state capitalism originating with the Federalists who agitated for the Constitution, associated with Alexander Hamilton and his successors. Thus in the Anti-Federalist camp were the earliest fits and starts of the party of labor. Luther Martin, the most radical and outspoken of the Anti-Federalists at the Constitutional Convention, distinguished himself as America's first labor lawyer when he defended the Baltimore cordwainers against the charge of conspiracy in 1806, in what is widely regarded as the first strike in American history. The beginnings of the American labor movement are usually associated with the Workingmen's parties that emerged to support Andrew Jackson, the champion of universal white male suffrage who used his populist war against the Bank of the United States to begin the perpetual expansion of the powers of the presidency. They ranged from the Workingmen's Party of New York, led by the utopian socialist Thomas Skidmore, to the eclectically named Locofoco movement, which recalled the Anti-Federalist legacy.

The Civil War, of course, was the harbinger of the rise of the United States as an industrial capitalist power, and the emerging industrial working class put up massive resistance to taking up arms. In July 1863, the Draft Riots that seized New York were led by ironworkers in Manhattan and longshoremen in Brooklyn—a near-revolution in many ways anticipating that which the young Workingmen's Party of America would make a bid to lead in 1877. Similar insurrections also broke out in Albany and St. Louis; in Hartford, Indiana; Port Washington, Wisconsin; and among coal miners across Pennsylvania. In this last case, grievances over working conditions of the miners combined with the protest of conscription. For if one accepts that conscription is slavery, ever a cardinal principle of the Socialist Party of America, it cannot be denied that the Draft Riots were a greater insurrection against slavery than any that took place in the South during the war.

Eight years later, American editorialists were quick to compare the Paris Commune to the events of July 1863, as they indeed cast a long shadow in the violence with which labor would be met by its enemies. One of the earliest indications of possible violence came with the Panic of 1873, when the collapse of the Northern Pacific Railroad led to massive unemployment, with 180,000 out of work in New York State alone. Peter McGuire, who first entered politics and the Marxist orbit as a leader of the unemployed in the immediate wake of the panic, planned to lead a march on City Hall on January 13, 1874. No doubt fearful of a second Irish-led working class uprising in New York, the police charged unprovoked on the crowd as it was just gathering in Tompkins Square Park, critically injuring hundreds.

The growth of the vast system of railroads during and after the war, constructed by private builders with the generous assistance of the federal government, was the main engine of the rise of industrial capitalism. These means perfectly emulated the state capitalist vision of the Federalists and their successors in the new Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln himself spent most of his career as a railroad lawyer and shortly before being nominated for president was offered the position of general counsel to the New York Central Railroad. The inevitable bust of the railroad boom caused the Panic of 1873, leading to what was then the worst depression in American history. The lure of railroad capitalization was at the heart of the Great Compromise, with the major promise attracting the Southern Democrats being the construction of a southern transcontinental railroad. Most railroads, still reeling from the depression, were implementing drastic wage cuts as late as 1877. At the same time, many railroads began to implement company-town–style control over the lives of their employees, to tie them as virtual serfs to their trains. Naturally, then, the inevitable reckoning would take place on the railroads.

The failure of the existing Brotherhoods of Engineers, Firemen, and Conductors to halt these draconian policies by the Pennsylvania Railroad led to the formation of a secretive Trainmen's Union along the line from Pittsburgh to Chicago. On July 16, 1877, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad enacted a 10 percent wage cut following the example of the Pennsylvania. That evening, the crew of a cattle train at the yard in Martinsburg, West Virginia, walked off the job. After informing the B&O officials that no trains would leave until the wage cut was rescinded, the townspeople of Martinsburg gathered to assist the strikers in repelling first the local police and then the state National Guard: by midnight the yard was securely in the hands of the strikers. After three hundred federal troops were dispatched to break the strike on July 19, sympathy strikes immediately broke out in the neighboring depots of Keyser and Wheeling in West Virginia; they soon spread to Baltimore where strikers were able to hold up further dispatches of federal troops. From Baltimore, the infrastructure provided by the Trainmen's Union allowed the strike to spread rapidly to Pittsburgh and beyond. Mill and factory workers across Pittsburgh were quick to join the railroad men in sympathy strikes, and although a sympathy strike in Philadelphia was easily crushed, the reduced numbers of militia who made it to Pittsburgh were dispirited and in large numbers joined the strikers.

With the support of the local population, even the federal troops were routed from Pittsburgh, a pattern repeated in small towns across Pennsylvania and eventually in Buffalo. The strike continued west to Indianapolis and Louisville, where in the latter city there was a general strike led by integrated unions. An integrated longshoremen's union also led a sympathy strike in Texas at the port of Galveston, targeting the Texas and Pacific Railroad implicated in the Great Compromise just a few short months earlier. Though relatively late to the action, the Workingmen's Party soon found itself with the unparalleled opportunity to seize the leadership of this great upheaval. When the tiny San Francisco local of the new party called a rally in support of the strike, a crowd of seven thousand answered. The party was able to attract similar mass rallies in New York, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. In Chicago it was only after the party's call for a series of mass rallies that a small group of forty switchmen struck on the Michigan Central Railroad, which rapidly led to a shutdown of the railroads and then a general strike. As the strike spread to St. Louis and the upheaval reached its climax, the Workingmen's Party of America found itself at the head of a potential revolution.

Many of the cities engulfed by the Great Railroad Strike, perhaps most famously Baltimore, had suffered under harsh occupation by Union troops during the late war, and memories were still fresh for both occupier and occupied in 1877. So it was probably nowhere more appropriate for a workers' revolution to commence than St. Louis, where the full force of the army had been brought down against labor unrest during the war. After organizing a full third of the attendees at a mass meeting of 1,500 held to call a general strike, a local Workingmen's Party leader exhorted the crowd, "All you have to do, gentlemen, for you have the numbers, is to unite on one idea—that the workingmen shall rule the country. What man makes, belongs to him, and the workingmen made this country." Within a day, a Committee of Safety was established in the office of the Workingmen's Party of St. Louis to govern the city and begin authorizing the various unions to return to work and to operate the mills and railroads at their own direction. But before the party could dispatch word to other cities to establish new committees, the army regrouped, having been tied down by the Indian Wars. Still, in Chicago, several days of pitched battle took place in the streets before the strikers were finally subdued.

General Winfield Hancock, the hardened Civil War veteran in charge of suppressing the strike, spoke of it as "the insurrection," clearly regarding it as of a piece with the late War of the Rebellion and the Draft Riots. Southern partisans have often insisted that the Civil War should not be identified as such, because the two sides were not contending over control of the same national government. The Civil War was really just one stage in the larger conflict between two irreconcilable parties that raged most acutely from 1850 to 1877 and that, temporarily from 1861 to 1865, took on a geographical dimension—just as similar conflicts in Spain and China in the twentieth century had a temporary geographical dimension. Indeed, the Great Compromise of 1877 came about under the threat of an open armed conflict more exactly like a civil war. Thus, when this triumph of the party of state capitalism was met by armed revolt within a few short months, it looked like this threat was materializing in the Great Railroad Strike, but under circumstances few could have imagined.

The country into which the American Socialist movement was born, therefore, was not the city upon a hill being guided toward the millennium by the great and wise Abraham Lincoln. To the contrary: with a Civil War that killed six hundred thousand barely more than a decade behind it, the specter of another hovering over its shoulder with routinely stolen elections, and a military repeatedly facing off against both its indigenous peoples and its urban proletariat, the United States of America for the better part of the nineteenth century was a basket case of a republic that onlookers could justly regard as no more stable than its neighbors to the south.

But the Great Railroad Strike was by no means an unqualified failure. The immediate demands of the strikers—to have their full pay restored and for the operators to abandon their plans for more burdensome working conditions—were largely met. Forty years before Lenin, revolutionary insurrection was not a goal at the forefront of Marxist thinking. The success of the German Social Democrats, who elected twelve members to the Bundestag in the first election they contested that year, was a more compelling example to emulate. It was not at all unreasonable for the Workingmen's Party to surmise that its extraordinary success channeling sympathy for the Great Railroad Strike could be translated into success at the ballot box. At the first national convention, held in Newark the last week of 1877, thirty-eight delegates represented thirty-one locals. In anticipation of growing electoral prospects, the party renamed itself the Socialist Labor Party (SLP).

Over the next two years, the Socialist Labor Party enjoyed remarkable success at the ballot box. In Chicago, an alderman was elected in the spring of 1878, three representatives and one senator to the Illinois legislature that fall, and three more aldermen in the spring of 1879. Its candidate for mayor that year, Ernest Schmidt, received 20 percent of the vote. In St. Louis, two aldermen and three state assemblymen were also elected, and a whopping 64 percent of the municipal vote went to the SLP in Louisville. Comparable success occurred in Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and New Haven. In 1878, the party earned an impressive 17,000 votes in Baltimore, 6,000 in Buffalo, 3,600 in New York, and 2,400 in Brooklyn. Party founder George Schilling received 12 percent of the vote in a race for the U.S. House from Chicago. Local slates were also run in Boston, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, and New Orleans. In smaller towns, the most notable success was the election of two councilmen in Jeffersonville, Indiana.

Yet the Socialist Labor Party was by no means the biggest recipient of protest votes in the elections of 1878. The Greenback Party, with its call for the continued circulation of fiat money or "greenbacks" issued to fund the prosecution of the Civil War, received a million votes nationwide on the strength of the farm crisis that came on the tail end of the depression. In addition to earning hundreds of state legislative seats, thirteen Greenbackers were elected to the U.S. House—two each from Iowa, Maine, and Pennsylvania and one each from Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, and Vermont. With many labor leaders already backing the Greenback Party, such as Granite Cutters national secretary Thompson Murch, one of the two congressmen from Maine, the Greenbackers and the SLP began to see each other as natural allies despite considerable mutual suspicion.


Excerpted from The Socialist Party of America by Jack Ross. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Part I,
1. The Roots of American Socialism (1876–1892),
2. Populism and Beyond (1893–1900),
3. The Party Is Born (1901–1904),
4. The Fate of American Labor (1905–1909),
5. The Triumph of Progressivism (1910–1912),
6. Calm Before the Storm (1913–1916),
7. The Terror (1917–1918),
8. Fatal Alienation (1919–1920),
Part II,
9. A New Hope (1921–1924),
10. Changing of the Guard (1925–1929),
11. Depression and Renaissance (1930–1933),
12. The Two-Front Putsch (1934–1936),
13. American Catalonia (1937–1940),
14. Not to the Swift (1941–1948),
Part III,
15. The Twilight of American Socialism (1949–1963),
16. Out with the Old, In with the New (1964–1972),
17. Social Democrats USA and the Rise of Neoconservatism,
18. Democratic Socialists of America and the Roots of Post–Cold War Liberalism,
19. Socialist Party USA and the Radical Left since 1973,
20. After Exceptionalism,
Appendix A: National Officers of the Socialist Party,
Appendix B: Socialist Elected Officeholders, 1897–1960,
Appendix C: Presidential Vote Totals,

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