Early Twentieth-Century Socialism

Others, however, refused to join the two parties and continued the Populists’ radical political tradition, this time not among old stock American farmers but among urban laborers. The Socialist Party of America was founded in 1901, part of a larger socialist movement that, over the course of twenty years, made significant gains in its attempt to transform American economic life. Socialist mayors were elected in 33 cities and towns, ranging from Berkeley, California to Schenectady, New York, and two—Victor Berger from Wisconsin and Meyer London from New York—won congressional seats. All told, over 1000 American socialist candidates won various political offices. Julius A. Wayland, editor of the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, proclaimed that “socialism is coming. It’s coming like a prairie fire and nothing can stop it…you can feel it in the air.” By 1913 there were 150,000 members of the Socialist Party and in 1912 Eugene V. Debs, the Indiana-born Socialist Party candidate for president, received almost one million votes, or six percent of the total.

Eugene Victor Debs

American socialist leader Eugene Victor Debs, 1912. Library of Congress.

The Socialist Movement arose in response to America’s new industrial economy. Socialists argued that wealth and power were consolidated in the hands of too few individuals, that monopolies and trusts controlled too much of the economy, that owners and investors grew rich at the expense of the very workers who produced their wealth, and that workers, despite massive productivity gains and rising national wealth, still suffered from low pay, long hours, and unsafe working conditions. Karl Marx had described the new industrial economy as a worldwide class struggle between the “bourgeoisie” who owned the means of production, such as factories and farms, and the “proletariat,” factory workers and tenant farmers who worked only for the wealth of others. According to Eugene Debs, socialists sought “the overthrow of the capitalist system and the emancipation of the working class from wage slavery.” Under an imagined socialist cooperative commonwealth, the means of production would be owned collectively, ensuring that all men and women received a fair wage for their labor. According to socialist organizer and newspaper editor Oscar Ameringer, socialists wanted “ownership of the trust[s] by the government, and the ownership of the government by the people.”

The Socialist Movement drew from a diverse constituency. Party membership was open to all regardless of race, gender, class, ethnicity, or religion. Many prominent Americans, such as Helen Keller, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London, became socialists. They were joined by anonymous American workers, by lumberjacks from the Northwest, miners from the West, tenant farmers in the South and Southwest, small farmers from the Midwest, and factory workers from the Northeast. All united under the red flag of socialism. Ultimately, though, a combination of internal disagreements over ideology and tactics, government repression, the co-optation of socialist policies by progressive reformers, and perceived incompatibilities between socialism and American values sunk the party until it was largely dismantled by the early 1920s.