|Politics of the United States
The Socialist Party of America (SPA or SP) was a multi-tendency democratic-socialist political party in the United States, formed in 1901 by a merger between the three-year-old Social Democratic Party of America and disaffected elements of the Socialist Labor Party which had split from the main organization in 1899.
In the first decades of the 20th Century, it drew significant support from many different groups, including trade unionists, progressive social reformers, populist farmers, and immigrant communities. Its presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs, twice won over 900,000 votes (in 1912 and 1920), while the party also elected two United States Representatives (Victor L. Berger and Meyer London), dozens of state legislators, more than a hundred mayors, and countless lesser officials. The party's staunch opposition to American involvement in World War I, although welcomed by many, also led to prominent defections, official repression and vigilante persecution. The organization was further shattered by a factional war over how it should respond to Russia's Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the establishment of the Communist International in 1919.
After endorsing Robert LaFollette's presidential campaign in 1924, the Socialist Party returned to independent action and experienced modest growth in the early 1930s behind presidential candidate Norman Thomas. After the 1920s, however, the Party's appeal was weakened by the popularity of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the superior organization and tactical flexibility of the Communist Party under Earl Browder, and the resurgent labor movement's desire to support sympathetic Democratic Party politicians. A divisive and ultimately-unsuccessful attempt to broaden the party by admitting followers of Leon Trotsky and Jay Lovestone caused the traditional "Old Guard" to leave and form the Social Democratic Federation. While the party was always strongly anti-Fascist, as well as anti-Stalinist, the SP's ambivalent attitude towards World War II cost it both internal and external support.
The SP stopped running Presidential candidates after 1956, when its nominee Darlington Hoopes won fewer than 3,000 votes. In the party's last decades, its members, many of them prominent in the labor, peace, civil rights and civil liberties movements, fundamentally disagreed about the socialist movement's relationship to the labor movement and Democratic Party in the U.S., and about how best to advance democracy abroad. In 1972–73, these strategic differences had become so acute that the Socialist Party splintered into three distinct successor groups.
From 1901 to the onset of World War I, the Socialist Party had numerous elected officials. There were two Socialist members of Congress, Meyer London of New York City and Victor Berger of Milwaukee (a part of the sewer socialism movement, a major front in socialism, Milwaukee being the first city (and the only major one) to elect a socialist mayor, which it did four times between 1910 and 1960); over 70 mayors, and many state legislators and city councilors. Its voting strength was greatest among recent Jewish, Finnish and German immigrants, coal miners, and former Populist farmers in the Midwest. From 1900 (before its formal union) to 1912, the Socialist Party ran Eugene Debs for President at each election. The best showing ever for a Socialist ticket was in 1912, when Debs gained 901,551 total votes, or 6% of the popular vote. In 1920 Debs ran again, this time from prison, and received 913,693 votes, 3.4% of the total.
Early political perspectives ranged from radical socialism to social democracy, with New York party leader Morris Hillquit and Congressman Berger on the more social democratic or right wing of the party and radical socialists and syndicalists, including members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the party's frequent candidate, Eugene V. Debs, on the left wing of the party. As well there were agrarian utopian-leaning radicals, such as Julius Wayland of Kansas, who edited the party's leading national newspaper, Appeal to Reason along with trade unionists; Jewish, Finnish, and German immigrants; and intellectuals such as Walter Lippmann and the Black activist/intellectual Hubert Harrison.
The party had a tense and complicated relationship with the American Federation of Labor. The American Federation of Labor leadership, headed by Samuel Gompers, was strongly opposed to the SPA, but many rank and file unionists in the early party of the 20th Century saw in the Socialists reliable political allies. Many moderate Socialists, such as Victor Berger and International Typographical Union President Max S. Hayes, urged close cooperation with the American Federation of Labor and its member unions. Others in the Socialist Party's ranks dismissed the American Federation of Labor and its craft unions as antiquated and irrelevant, instead favoring the much more radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the syndicalist path to socialism.
In 1911, IWW leader William "Big Bill" Haywood was elected to the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Party, on which American Federation of Labor partisan Morris Hillquit also served. The syndicalist and the electoral socialist squared off in a lively public debate in New York City's Cooper Union on Jan. 11, 1912, with Haywood declaring that Hillquit and the socialists ought to try "a little sabotage in the right place at the proper time" and attacked Hillquit for having abandoned the class struggle by helping the New York garment workers negotiate an industrial agreement with their employers. Hillquit replied that he had no new message rather than to reiterate a belief in a two-sided workers movement, with separate and equal political and trade union arms. "A mere change of structural forms would not revolutionize the American labor movement as claimed by our extreme industrialists," he declared.
The issue of "syndicalism vs. socialism" was bitterly fought over the next two years, consummated by "Big Bill" Haywood's recall from the SPA's NEC and the departure of a broad section of the left wing from the organization. The memory of this split made the intra-party battles of 1919-1921 all the more bitter.
The party's opposition to World War I caused a sharp decline in membership. An increase in the membership of its language federations from areas involved in the Bolshevik Revolution proved illusory, since these members were soon lost to the Communist Party. The party also lost some of its most prominent members, who had been in favor of America's entry into World War I, including Walter Lippmann, John Spargo, J.G. Phelps Stokes, and William English Walling. They briefly formed the National Party, in an unrealized hope of merging with the remnants of Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party and the Prohibition Party.
In June 1918 the Party's best-known leader, Eugene Victor Debs made an anti-war speech calling for draft resistance; he was arrested under the Sedition Act of 1918, convicted and sentenced to serve ten years in prison. He was pardoned by President Warren G. Harding in 1921.
The Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party emerged as an organized faction early that same year, building its organization around a lengthy Left Wing Manifesto authored by Louis C. Fraina. This effort to organize in order to "win the Socialist Party for the Left Wing" met with staunch resistance from the "Regulars" who controlled a big majority of the seats of the SPA's governing National Executive Committee. When it seemed certain that the 1919 party elections for a new NEC had been dominated by the Left Wing, the sitting NEC, citing voting irregularities, refused to tally the votes, declared the entire election invalid and in May 1919 suspended the party's Russian, Latvian, Ukrainian, Polish, South Slavic, and Hungarian language federations, in addition to the entire state organization of Michigan. In future weeks, the state organizations of Massachusetts and Ohio would similarly be disfranchised and "reorganized" by the NEC, while in New York and Pennsylvania, the "Regular" State Executive Committees undertook reorganization of Left Wing branches and locals on a case-by-case basis.
In June 1919, the Left Wing Section held a conference in New York City to discuss their organizational plans. The group found themselves deeply divided, with one section, led by NEC members Alfred Wagenknecht and L.E. Katterfeld and including famed radical journalist John Reed favoring a continued effort to gain control of the SPA at its forthcoming Emergency National Convention in Chicago, to be held at the end of August, while another section, headed by the Russian Socialist Federation of Alexander Stoklitsky and Nicholas Hourwich and the Socialist Party of Michigan seeking to wash their hands of the Socialist Party and immediately move to the establishment of a new Communist Party of America. Eventually this latter Federation-dominated group was joined by important Left Wingers C.E. Ruthenberg and Louis Fraina, a depletion of Left Wing forces which made the result of the 1919 Socialist Convention a foregone conclusion.
Regardless, the plans of Wagenknecht, Reed & Co. to fight it out at the 1919 Emergency National Convention continued apace. With the most radical state organizations effectively purged by the Regulars (Massachusetts, Minnesota) or unable to participate (Ohio, Michigan), and the Left Wing language federations suspended, a big majority of the hastily elected delegates to the gathering were controlled by the Executive Secretary Adolph Germer and the Regulars. A group of Left Wingers without delegate credentials, including John Reed and his sidekick Benjamin Gitlow, made an effort to occupy chairs on the convention floor before the gathering was called into order. The incumbents were unable to block the Left Wingers at the door, but soon called the already present police to their aid, and the officers of the law obligingly expelled the boisterous radicals from the hall. With the Credentials Committee firmly in the hands of the Regulars from the outset, the outcome of the gathering was no longer in doubt and most of the remaining Left Wing delegates departed, to meet with other co-thinkers downstairs in a previously-reserved room in a parallel convention. It was this gathering which established itself as the Communist Labor Party on August 31, 1919.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Chicago the Federations and Michiganders and their supporters established the Communist Party of America at a convention gaveled to order on September 1, 1919. Unity between these two communist organizations was a lengthy and complicated process, formally taking place at a secret convention held at the Overlook Mountain House hotel near Woodstock, New York in May 1921 with the establishment of a new unified "Communist Party of America."
A Left Wing loyal to the Communist International remained in the Socialist Party through 1921, continuing the fight to bring the SPA into the ranks of the Comintern. This group, which opposed the underground secret organizations which the Communist Parties had become, included noted party journalist J. Louis Engdahl and William Kruse, head of the party's youth affiliate, the Young People's Socialist League, as well as a significant segment of the SPA's Chicago organization. These left wing dissidents continued to make themselves heard until their departure from the party after the convention of 1921.
On January 7, 1920, less than a week after the Palmer Raids had swept and stunned the country, a new session of the New York State Assembly was called to order. The majority Republicans easily elected their candidate for the Speaker, Thaddeus C. Sweet and after opening day formalities the body took a brief recess. Back in session, Sweet declared: "The Chair directs the Sergeant-at-Arms to present before the Bar of the House Samuel A. DeWitt, Samuel Orr, Louis Waldman, Charles Solomon, and August Claessens," the Assembly's five Socialist members.
Sweet attacked the five, declaring they had been "elected on a platform that is absolutely inimical to the best interests of the state of New York and the United States." The Socialist Party, Sweet said, was "not truly a political party," but was rather "a membership organization admitting within its ranks aliens, enemy aliens, and minors." The party had denounced America's participation in the European war and had lent aid and comfort to Ludwig Martens, the "self-styled Soviet Ambassador and alien, who entered this country as a German in 1916." It had supported the revolutionaries in Germany, Austria, and Hungary, Sweet continued, and consorted with international Socialist parties close to the Communist International. Sweet concluded:
The Assembly suspended the quintet by a vote of 140 to 6, with one Democrat supporting the Socialists. Civil libertarians and concerned citizens raised their voices to aid the suspended Socialists, and protest percolated throughout the press. The principal argument was that majority parties expelling elected members of minority parties from their councils set a dangerous precedent in a democracy. The battle culminated in a highly publicized trial in the Assembly, which dominated the body's activity from its opening on January 20, 1920, until its conclusion on March 11. Socialist Party leader and former 1917 New York City mayoral candidate Morris Hillquit served as chief counsel for the suspended Socialists, aided by party founder, and future Socialist Vice Presidential candidate, Seymour Stedman.
At the trial, Hillquit charged that Speaker Sweet had made a "specific, concrete, definite, affirmative declaration of guilt" of the five Assemblymen before they were ever charged with any offense. It was the chief accuser, Speaker Sweet, who also appointed the members of the Judiciary Committee to which the matter was referred. "Thus the accuser selects his own judges," Hillquit declared. Hillquit sought to remove for reasons of bias any members of the Judiciary Committee who had taken part in the activities of the Lusk Committee, the New York State Senate's anti-radicalism committee. Hillquit particularly challenged the presence of Assemblyman Louis Cuvillier, who had stated on the floor of the house the previous night words to the effect that "if the five accused Assemblymen are found guilty, they ought not to be expelled, but taken out and shot." The Assembly voted overwhelmingly for expulsion on April 1, 1920.
A special election was held September 16, 1920, to fill the five seats vacated by the Assembly, with each of the five expelled Socialists running for re-election against a "fusion" candidate representing the combined Republican and Democratic parties. All five Socialists were returned to office.
Three of the five, Waldman, Claessens, and Solomon, were again denied their seats after a contentious debate by votes of 90 to 45 on September 21, 1920. Orr and DeWitt, deemed less culpable than their peers by the earlier findings of the Judiciary Committee, were seated by votes of 87 to 48. In solidarity with their ousted colleagues, the pair refused to take their seats.
After the five seats were again vacated, Morris Hillquit expressed his disappointment at the "unconstitutional action" of the Assembly. However, Hillquit continued, "it will draw the issues clearer between the united Republican and Democratic parties representing arbitrary lawlessness, and the Socialist Party, which stood and stands for democratic and representative government."